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"Coomer is clearly an author of serious talent." —The Washington Post Book World
Inhabiting an island off the coast of Maine left to her by her great-uncle Arno, Hannah finds her life as a dedicated and solitary artist rudely interrupted one summer when a dog, matted with feathers and seaweed, arrives with the tide. He is only the first of a series of unexpected visitors and is soon followed by a teenager running from an abusive father, a half sister in trouble, a mainland ...
"Coomer is clearly an author of serious talent." —The Washington Post Book World
Inhabiting an island off the coast of Maine left to her by her great-uncle Arno, Hannah finds her life as a dedicated and solitary artist rudely interrupted one summer when a dog, matted with feathers and seaweed, arrives with the tide. He is only the first of a series of unexpected visitors and is soon followed by a teenager running from an abusive father, a half sister in trouble, a mainland family, and a forlorn trapped whale. In the engrossing drama that unfolds, Hannah's love of her island solitude competes with her instinctive compassion for others.
In this booksellers' favorite and two-time Book Sense pick, now available in paperback, Joe Coomer offers the rugged yet stunning beauty of Maine and the lobstermen and their families who are dependent on the sea for survival. Pocketful of Names is a deeply human tale about the unpredictability of nature, art, family, and the flotsam and jetsam that comprise our lives.
She'd come to the quarry to see what the afternoon's high tide had brought. This was the first time it had delivered a dog. The quarry acted as a weir, yet in addition to trapping herring it collected all the driftwood, cut buoys, and floating debris carried in the currents around Ten Acre No Nine Island. Dead gulls, the occasional prop-slashed seal, the carcass of a basking shark had all washed in before, but never a breathing dog. She'd examined him for minutes before concluding he was alive, before telling him there might not be enough room. The dog did not wake. He lay on his back on a granite ledge in the quarry. His four paws hung from the sky as if on hooks. The second thing she said to him: "You're a fat one." Still he did not wake. There were bits of feather glued to his gums, seaweed looped around his tail. Blue mussel sand crested on the waves in his fur. There was no way to know as yet whether he was a biting dog or a licking dog. A nice brown leather collar, but no tags. His breathing caught on his own starched tongue. The feathers he'd used for gills were drying out. The tide had left him on the ledge and had now dropped a couple of feet or more, so that the next step down in the quarry was visible.
The quarry, a little more than an acre cut from the center of the island, was shaped like an amphitheater whose stage was a pool of seawater. The slab steps were irregular, some only a foot high, while others required a ladder or a circuitous route that reminded her of an Escher print to reach their bases. At times it was seventy-five feet from the crest of the quarry to the surface of the water and at times it was eighty-five feet, depending upon the state of the tide, which rose or fell ten feet every six hours. Below the dog, the granite was carbuncled by barnacles. Lower, moss and seaweed clung to the sheer surfaces, and far below, where there was always water even at the low, lay a rich field of urchins and cold-water starfish and mussels. The pink granite, like that quarried in most of the islands off Stonington, Maine, had gone to government offices and churches in Boston and New York, to the Brooklyn Bridge, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Grant's Tomb, Sing Sing. The afternoon sun broke off the upper walls in flat sheets of light. All shadows were angular, every cut sharp and square, but the mouth of the quarry, where the water flowed in and out, was a ragged tear of splintered stone and boulders. Her great-uncle had a part in this, working with a case of dynamite during a storm, enlarging the entrance so his narrow lobster boat could slip inside, making a safe sea harbor.
While she waited for the dog to stir, she fished a short plank with faded remains of blue paint from the water, then a bit of twisted root, a small Styrofoam net buoy, and a red cap with "Seavey's Lobster Co-op" stitched in yellow. She could carry these things up the steps and ladders with her, but the dog was a different matter. She'd have to use the derrick and boom. When bulkier objects floated in, a log or wooden box or enough driftwood to bundle together, she would use her great-uncle's lift. The derrick itself was iron, left by the quarrymen, and the boom an old mast. Although she'd seen him use it several times when she was young, it had taken her weeks to get the hang of operating it when she came back to the island alone six years ago. The winch on the lift was powered by an old V-8 Ford engine that lived under a tin roof on the rim of the quarry. It sounded like Armageddon when started, as the muffler and much of the exhaust manifold had long since rusted away, and every fire of each spark plug collected in the huge funnel of the quarry and was from there sent forth across the waters like repeated dynamite blasts. She'd received complaints about the noise from Crotch Island, whose quarry was in operation once again, and from Stonington, whose citizens were reminded of her great-uncle's illegal explosions. She knew the sound of the engine might worry the dog, so she first let the cable and the carrying trap freewheel off the winch down into the quarry. The idea was to get him into the basket, an old wire lobster trap, about two feet by four, before she started the engine. She climbed back down into the quarry and swung the trap around to the ledge below the dog. The dog's eyes were now open, although he still lay on his back, unmoving.
She watched him watch her push the trap against the stone beneath him. The third thing she said to the dog: "Good dog." He responded with a brush of his tail across the granite and a groan. He rolled over slowly, turned his head toward her, and vomited salt water. Bending over, she pushed on the stiff fur of his back and slowly slid his body over the rim of the rock shelf. His legs dropped in the trap first and supported him enough so that his fall into the bottom of the cage was more of a crumple. He put his snout on his forelegs, too weak to lick the vomit from his jowls. She tied a pair of straps over the top of the cage, looping one through the dog's collar. After climbing back out of the quarry, she brought the cable up taut with a hand crank, then hit the starter button for the winch engine. The engine came to life like a bear from a cave. She shifted the winch into gear. The dog was trying to rise up out of the trap but was restrained by the straps. As the cable wound round the drum, the dog rose higher, suspended in the hollow quarry, sunlight catching him fully now. He was surrounded by the reflection of light off flecks of mica and facets of quartz embedded in the granite face. As the dog cleared the rim, his forepaws patting the floor of the basket, she shut down the engine. Tugging on the long boom with a line, she brought the dog over soft ground, moss and spruce needles and dark shade. The trap settled on the earth and she unfastened his collar. He stepped out, walked unsteadily to the nearest tree, and raised his leg.
"So," she said to him, "life starts over again, eh?"
* * *
She craved isolation, and thought an island the most productive place for her to work as an artist. Focused. Find a center and stand there and work in place. The natural barrier of the sea would not only keep her in place but repel others, all those who felt the need to praise or critique her work, to talk about art rather than live it. It was an efficient existence. Her isolation ensured her devotion to her work, and all her materials were at hand, or were brought to her by the action of the tide and current, or by the deliberateness of birds searching for a nesting site and a nice piece of granite to drop a mussel on. Though wary of the sea she'd come to trust it to keep its place, at least to a range. She knew she couldn't fall asleep below the level of the highest tides in summer, though the warm granite slabs were inviting: the water would take her. And she knew that in winter the waves could reach beyond the bare rock and into the spruce forest: great driftwood logs lay yards inland, and spruce limbs faltered under the weight of their own burls, barked hives of growth caused by salt stress.
If the margins of the island shifted, it was large enough to support a calm interior, a forest at the northern end, a meadow at the south. Hannah tended a garden in the meadow, near the foundations of an eighteenth-century farmhouse and barn. The soil was thin over the granite and occasionally gave way to outcroppings, but there was enough dirt to support onions and lettuce, tomatoes and beans. There were wild blueberries and blackberries among the rock, and still, next to the granite threshold, lilacs and irises bloomed. Working in the shallow furrows between the house and barn foundations, ground she assumed rich with chicken droppings, she'd from time to time find a button or shard of early pottery and remember again that she was only the latest of many to lose something on this island. Somewhere, in a crevice in the granite or perhaps in the garden soil as well, were the pocketknife her great-uncle had given her as a child, and a fine porcelain butter pat she'd used for a watercolor paint tray. Both had fallen from her kit over the last six years, as she crossed the island looking for a subject.
She produced watercolors so faint they looked like the bled-through seepings on the next page in the pad, or like the blottings of a real painting when it was almost dry. Yet these thin, severe renderings, little more than water and paper mixed, when committed to sculpture found opacity and weight. The watercolors rarely left the island, the sculptures and her larger oil paintings, always. She packed each piece in dried meadow grass and cardboard boxes, tied the box with lobster warp that had washed up on her beach after storms. The address labels were provided by her gallery in New York, and for a return she wrote her name in water. If they didn't make it to New York she didn't want them washing up on the island again.
In the summer she wore short-ankled boots and cotton socks, flannel shirts and khaki shorts, so that her legs were brown and berry scratched, her knees hairless where she bent down on granite. In the winter she wore calf-high boots and wool socks and flannel shirts and fleece-lined pants from L. L. Bean because, like the feathers she used in her sculptures and the driftwood she burned in her stove, her wardrobe had to be delivered. Catalogs and mail order consumed more of her time than she liked to consider. She was ashamed that after all these years, isolated as she was from other people, that clothes and fashion and her personal appearance still stole part of her productive life. She read the words cotton and wool and linen and craved that texture between her fingers, across her bare back. The words themselves seemed to reside beside others like bark and granite and sand. She believed so stringently in natural fibers that the comfort and warmth of her Polartec made her feel as if she were a backslider, a plastic heretic. It seemed faithless to wear something next to skin that would melt rather than burn, burn like her own skin would if it caught fire. But a kayaker had left a fleece jacket hanging from a branch of one of her trees. It was a cool day, and she was at the far end of her island. She put it on, and wore it while beachcornbing home, and wore it through the afternoon and fell asleep in it, and saw no reason to take it off the next day. It was as if someone had left a religious tract rubber-banded to her doorknob and in an instant of weakness she'd read it and become intrigued. She'd ordered fleece pants and sweaters and even blankets, but hid them in her house like pornography, and then put them on like robes of sin, allowing her body to be warmed and fondled by petroleum.
Once a week she called in an order to the market in Stonington. In the winter she ordered enough for two weeks in case the boat couldn't get through. The delivery boat motored into the quarry, leaving her groceries and mail, taking her sculptures and paintings. The delivery boys, the only people she had regular contact with, seemed to change from tide to tide. In the summer, the boys came in open Whalers or skiffs. In winter, they arrived in boats that had something to break the wind and spray for the helmsman, an old lobster boat or a skiff with a house cobbled out of plywood and canvas. They gave her a blast on the horn as fair warning when they came into the quarry, but still her mail and crates of food were often left there on a ledge, the boat gone before she could arrive. She didn't think the boys were unfriendly, only on schedule. There were dozens of islands in the Merchant archipelago, few inhabited year round, but in summer the channels were busy with the boats of residents and tourists.
She was long past caring about men or even companionship. Her last romance ended a year before she came to the island. Her work was what mattered now. It was more than enough on a day-to-day basis, but she wanted, on her last day, to look back and see a body of work that not only pleased others, but made worthwhile a privileged life by the sea.
* * *
She guessed he was a spaniel or Labrador of some sort. She'd had little contact with dogs. In the midst of his leg-lifting he'd fallen over like a suitcase. Hannah picked him up, though he was easily sixty pounds, and carried him down the trail to her house.
It was a small cape, another early farmhouse. The clapboards had weathered gray, but she'd painted the door and window trim periwinkle blue. She never ceased to be pleased with its aspect, returning from either end of the island or the quarry. There was another small house, built entirely of granite block, nearer the shore, and beyond that the old man's boat house, built on an incline just above the high-tide mark. A rusty set of rails led from the boat house over a smooth run of granite into the water. His old lobster boat was still inside. She considered it past use. It was a wooden boat, and its seams, since the old man had died six years ago, had opened up.
She'd come to the island twice as a child with her mother to visit her great-uncle. He picked them up in Stonington with the old boat. He seemed old from the day she met him, but a dozen years later, when she came back to work for him, he seemed no older. He took her hand for the first time when she was eight years old, and holding his own cheek with the other hand, told her, "Don't be afraid of me, young one. The islands wear a face. I'm still soft as you on the inside." But his hands were rough and there was stubble beneath his chin and he smelled like fish. For a time his only family was his brother, Hannah's grandfather. Then there was her grandmother, her mother and father, Hannah herself, and then they began to die in that order, so that by the time Hannah was twenty she was his only family.
She swam those first two visits, but had no memory of the water being cold. She remembered her mother wearing a deep blue one-piece swimsuit, sitting on a slab of pink granite at the water's edge. And her great-uncle sitting in a red steel lawn chair at a distance. They both watched her jumping off the short granite pier at high tide and dog paddling back to shore. She cut her knee on a barnacle and the three of them walked back up through the grass to the house for a Band-Aid. She remembered the blood, thinned with salt water, trickling down her shin to her foot and onto the island.
Her mother had told her not to expect too much from him. He was poor and didn't talk much. But on her second visit, when she was ten, he took her out one day to haul his lobster traps. The stench of the bait was almost unbearable, but the old man lost his silence. There were dozens of other lobster boats in the myriad channels cutting through the islands. He stopped alongside every other one for a chat. She realized she didn't have as many conversations in a week in New York. When he asked if she wanted to band the claws of the lobsters, she put her hands in her back pockets.
"They don't bite, much," he told her, then held out his left hand. His middle finger was a section short.
Her jaw dropped, but she asked, "How much does the job pay?"
"Sternman, a good one now, gets part of the catch. Might mean ten dollars a day to you."
"I'll want gloves."
He nodded. And so she bagged bait, banded keepers, and hosed down the boat for the final four days of her visit. He'd tried to round off her pay to fifty dollars when she was leaving, but she'd returned the ten and told him, "You'll need that to pay my wages next summer."
But she didn't return the next year, or the next. Her parents had been divorced when she was nine. And while her mother managed well for several years, by the time Hannah was twelve an afternoon glass of wine had evolved into a bottle. She died in an auto accident two months after Hannah's seventeenth birthday. Hannah lived with her father, who'd remarried, for the next five months, sharing a room with her half sister, Emily, who was eight years her junior. The day after high school graduation, she left for Bennington College in Vermont. Her father died in her sophomore year of an aneurysm. Emily and her mother moved to Texas, and Hannah rarely heard from them.
Excerpted from Pocketful of Names by Joe Coomer Copyright © 2005 by Joe Coomer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Joe Coomer has become my "must read" author. I read this book from the library then had to have my own copy to read again (and also bought copies of 2 other Coomer books I haven't read yet). The setting is a small island off the coast of Maine and the small coastal community a short sail (or row) away. The story involves art, identity, love and loss, reclamation of truth, letting go but also acceptance. The people are quirky but very real. I loved this book and highly recommend it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 23, 2009
My husband, my daughter, my mother - all loved it. Me too. Maybe living in Maine gives us a deeper understanding of the setting, relationships, and work of these characters. But it was a touching story, full of the details of life on the Maine coast, and the difficulties of being an artist. I don't usually bother to do reviews, but I see that this wonderful book has very few reviews and it deserves greater praise.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 17, 2008
The author has a beautiful way with words, which made a great story. It's one of the best books I've read in a long time. It has heart, lots of heart. Any seasoned, serious reader will love it. I plan to buy more of Joe Coomer.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 24, 2007
At first dive, this book is great, especially if you are familiar with New England at all. Unfortunately, the deeper I got into the book, the more lackluster it became and awry it began to head. I also thought that the last hundred or so pages were rushed making you feel like you just wasted a lot of time getting to not much of anything. Sometimes I think that male writers just can't pull of writing for the view of a woman lead character in fiction.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 19, 2007
Hannah Bryant is a artist lucky enough to make a living off her art work. She is happy living a hermit's life on an island in Maine inherited from her great uncle Arno Weed. Her isolation is broken by unwelcome visitors, starting with a dog washed up on the beach. Everyone has a secret or a story. Hannah is forced to confront their needs and her own secrets. I found the characters interesting and real. Its a warm story without becoming overly sentimental. An all round good read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 17, 2007
While reading this novel, having been attracted by its subject matter, I kept wondering if the editor-in-charge was marooned on his or her own island and unable to dock when it counted. All the right stuff is here, it just needs gobs of cutting, especially around marine life descripiton and area history, as well as a larger, more animated arc. However, I stuck with it, intrigued by various plot lines, though realizing at the end that I didn't care much for the protagonist. And that doesn't help. I know there's a gem within this morass, and wish Mr. Coomer had embraced the less in more approach.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 3, 2005
Posted July 5, 2005
This is absolutely one of the best books I've ever read. It should be and could be a best seller. In my top five favorites of all time. So many twists and turns. A must read for everyone.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 23, 2008
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Posted April 9, 2010
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Posted June 5, 2009
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Posted March 27, 2010
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