On Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea
This is Morgan Callan Rogers’s book. I first was introduced to the characters who come alive in it when Morgan and I were in graduate school, at the Stonecoast MFA program of the University of Southern Maine. I was reintroduced to them during a graduate assistant reading a few summers later, at the Stonecoast Writers’ Conference, where Morgan was working. Now, finally, I have their entire story in my hands.
I have to say that I was predisposed to love this novel because I so love and admire its author. More, though, I love it because this is the real Maine I grew up in. “The Real Maine” is a term I’ve heard bandied about throughout most of my reading life. It was attached to most reviews I’d read of The Beans of Egypt, Maine, which came out when I was a teenager. I remember being angered by that appellation, because there was no way in hell I grew up like those characters–but the fact that Carolyn Chute’s novel was labeled in this manner seemed to negate my own experience of reality. Yeah. I grew up here, too, but we had a bit more self-respect than that. Morgan’s characters do, too. In fact, the people I lived with, in my family, in my neighborhood, in my working-class town, have counterparts among the characters Morgan plants on her fictional Point. They all worked hard. Some were lobstermen. Some drove school buses. Some were policemen. Some worked at the shoe shop. Some were mechanics. Hard, low-paying jobs, for the most part. Like the fictional Florine Gilham, I grew up next door to my grandmother, and that lady taught me how to do practical things, like make pie crusts (she once tried to teach me to knit, as Grand teaches Florine, but for me that didn’t work out very well). For all of us kids in the neighborhood, the adults had plans involving our going on to college, to get a step ahead of where they were. Florine and her father Leeman and his mother Grand are proud people. My sisters and brother and the nine Nichols kids and the five Phillips kids and the three Dotens–we all came from proud people, too. Reading Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea, I found so much in the lives Morgan created that resonated with my experience.
But like Florine and her friends, we also grew up, as did many kids on the coast, with that nagging resentment: we were natives and worked hard for little, and we were surrounded by the summer people, who had all that we did not, including those summers themselves, where they got to spend time in their
second homes. Class conscious? Oh, we were. Ironically, I met Morgan at USM’s Stone House on Wolf’s Neck in Freeport: this was a property that formerly belonged to Mr. and Mrs. L. M. C. Smith, who, we were always told, were connected to the Smith-Corona typewriter people, and who, we knew, had more money than God. I actually spent one teenaged summer working for Mrs. Smith at a property she owned on Wolf’s Neck. Imagine! I never set foot in the Stone House when I was an employee of Mrs. Smith’s–but the day I began the USM grad program, I went through that entire place, opening every door, looking in every room: I even went up into the attic and looked in boxes and trunks still wedged under those big old roof beams (that attic door had a lock put on it soon after). This class consciousness is part of the fabric of the world in Morgan’s novel; Florine, along with her friends Dottie, Glen, and Bud, are so influenced by it that their story opens with this hook: After we almost burned down a summer cottage, my friends and I were not allowed to see each other for the rest of July and August. It wasn’t arson, we’re later told, but a practical joke gone wrong, involving fire crackers and an attempt to startle the summer people during one of their drunken parties on their giant porch. I sympathized. The large pack of neighborhood kids I traveled with would have done the same…though I’m not admitting anything (right, Howard Nichols?).
More than anything, though, it’s the sense of community that Morgan has created for Florine that I recognize. We didn’t live on The Point. We lived at Grover’s Crossing. But we lived in each other’s houses, we lived that closely to one another’s lives. The town I lived in as a kid is long gone, turned into a giant strip mall serving those moneyed people we so envied back then. Our grandparents are long since dead, most of our parents as well. The Nicholses, the Dotens, the Phillipses and us–we’re all scattered. But it shaped me, I know, and I’m grateful. I’m also grateful to Morgan Callan Rogers for validating my experience. Thanks, Morgan. I love your book.
I also love my friend and fellow Stonecoast alum, the writer and entrepreneur Brenda Sparks Prescott for giving me this book for my birthday. She is a woman who understands valuable presents.