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Elizabeth Gilbert's first novel is the funny, warmhearted story of Fort Niles and Courne Haven, two fictional islands off the coast of Maine where "lobstermen are constantly competing with one another for good fishing territory. They get in each other's way, tangle each other's trap lines, spy on each other's boats, and steal each other's information." The lobster wars between the islands have shaped the life and times of their quirky, stubborn inhabitants for generations.
In 1967, Ruth Thomas is just nine years old: a plucky, sarcastic girl whose mother leaves the island under a mysterious shroud involving the wealthy Ellis family of Fort Niles. Raised by her lobsterman father, Ruth spends most of her time with her offbeat neighbors: Senator Simon, an eccentric septuagenarian and aquaphobe, and the loving Mrs. Pommeroy and her seven dim-witted sons.
In Stern Men, Ruth blossoms, comes of age, and falls in love with the shy handsome Owney Wishnell, a born lobsterman from rival Courne Haven; and becomes a shrewd businesswoman who stands up to the Ellis family to claim her rightful legacy. This loveable heroine single-handedly rallies the ragtag group of lobstermen, definitively puts an end to the centuries-old lobster wars, and prepares to embrace a glistening future full of new possibilities. The talented Elizabeth Gilbert has created a community of immensely satisfying and very real characters, and delivers a rich story full of good humor and a solid dose of important life lessons.
Surf and Turf
Elizabeth Gilbert follows her remarkable story collection, Pilgrims, with Stern Men, a richly imagined first novel set on two fictional islands. Courne Haven and Fort Niles are 20 miles off the coast of northern Maine, yet only a mile from each other; this proximity has bred both similarity and rivalry. Their gene pools are limited, and lobster fishing is their sole means of making a living. "Lobsters do not recognize boundaries and neither, therefore, can lobstermen.... It is a mean business, and it makes for mean men." The history of the two islands is a series of "lobster wars," and their inhabitants eye each other across Worthy Channel, constantly anticipating a new outbreak of hostility.
The novel's heroine, Ruth Thomas, was born on Fort Niles, and her parents—a local lobsterman and a woman with a mysterious, aristocratic background—separated while she is still young. Ruth is reared by her widowed neighbor, Mrs. Pommeroy, while remaining close to her father (who "wasn't against mending Ruth's skirt hems with a staple gun") and the island's other rough types. Eventually, following the wishes of her mother's family, she is sent to boarding school on the mainland, so that she might be exposed "to something other than lobster fishermen, alcoholism, ignorance, and cold weather."
When Ruth returns, she is 18 and no longer a girl. "Her hair was so thick, she could sew a button on a coat with it. Her skin was darker than anyone else's on Fort Niles, and she tanned to a smooth, even brown.... She had a bigger rear end than she wanted, but she didn't fuss about it too much.... She was a heavy sleeper. She was independent. She was sarcastic." Accused of thinking she's smarter than everyone else, she can't deny it with much conviction because "she did, in fact, think she was considerably smarter.... She felt it in her very lungs." Ruth argues with her father and—kicking against the control of her rich, distant grandfather—resists the notion that she should attend college. "The rest of her life," she admits, has "absolutely no shape to it"; what she needs is a future that will engage her spirited intelligence.
The wild, salty milieu of Stern Men is reminiscent of Annie Proulx's The Shipping News. Tragedy and comedy are often indistinguishable, and surprises come one after the other. The wry narrator operates from a slight distance, commenting on the action in parenthetical asides and whirling digressions; the result is a world steeped in fascination, a novel that requires the reader to slow and become immersed in its off-kilter atmosphere. Here, one child's inability to pronounce the letter "r" spreads across the island, until "you could hear the great strong fishermen complaining that they had to mend their wopes or fix their wigging or buy a new short-wave wadio;" brawls erupt over whether a man could "beat up a five-foot monkey in a fight."
Most convincing and resonant are the novel's portrayals of the characters on Fort Niles: Ruth's best friend, Mrs. Pommeroy, mother to five inbred sons; Cal Cooley, her grandfather's unctuous toady, as unavoidable as he is full of indecent proposals; and Senator Simon, an aged and eccentric bachelor who loves learning but fears the sea. Yet when Ruth leaves the island to visit her mother, she passes her reluctance along to the reader; the characters around her pale as her interest slips. And at times, even on Fort Niles, the narrative seems more concerned with (or mesmerized by) its digressive creativity than it is with moving the plot. Still, digressions often seem to be the point—the details and background history are so convincing, the connections between them so tight and compelling, that they make the most far-fetched people and events ring undeniably true.
Gilbert's descriptive prose is the driving force behind this alchemy. Irresistible and irrepressible, it provides both enthusiasm and authority. A fat baby is treated with the same wonder ("His belly stuck out comically over his diaper, and his thighs were taut and plump. His arms seemed to be assembled in segments, and he had several chins. His chest was slick with drool.") as is Ruth's first sexual experience: "Ruth and Owney went at it like pros, right from the start. There, in that shack on the filthy woolen blanket, they were doing raunchy, completely satisfying things to each other. They were doing things it might take other partners months to figure out. She was on top of him; he was on top of her. There seemed to be no part of each other that they were not willing to put into the other's mouth...." The language is seamless, unflagging, and provocative, urging itself on.
Ruth's encounter with Owney, of Courne Haven's famous Wishnell family, sets the novel's final act in motion. The inhabitants of both islands are scandalized, and the lovers kept apart, but Ruth stubbornly holds out for what she needs. In several bold moves, she manages to balance the injustices of her family's past while providing a future that unites Fort Niles and Courne Haven. The ingenious way details accrete and the care with which the story is told are what make this stunning, satisfying conclusion believable. Stern Men seduces the reader, arousing amazement and sympathy; like Ruth Thomas, it's big-hearted and full of bluster.
About the Author
Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of the story collection Pilgrims, a finalist for the 1998 PEN/Hemingway Award. It was a New York Times Notable Book and was listed as one of the Most Intriguing Books of 1997 by Glamour magazine. Pilgrims also won best first fiction awards from the Paris Review, the Southern Review, and Ploughshares. Gilbert's fiction has been published in Esquire, STORY, GQ, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and the Mississippi Review. She is also a Pushcart Prize winner, and her nonfiction writing has earned her a 1999 National Magazine Award nomination. Annie Proulx called Gilbert a "young writer of incandescent talent." Currently a writer-at-large for GQ, Gilbert lives in New York's Hudson Valley.