Of love and groundfish

By Dagney C. Ernest | Apr 05, 2017
Photo by: Dagney C. Ernest Barbara Kent Lawrence sits in her Camden workspace with her two novels; William A. Bracken’s “Looking Out” hangs on the wall.

Penobscot Marine Museum’s annual History Conference is set for Saturday, April 8, at the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center in Belfast. Titled The Net Result: Our Evolving Fisheries, it will examine the statement: "Human innovation and technology have proven to be too successful for the health of our fisheries and our coastal ecosystem."

When it comes to addressing the state of the groundfish fishery, Camden writer and educator Barbara Kent Lawrence, who will be an invited guest at the conference, has a novel idea — literally.

Lawrence fell in love with the coast of Maine when she was 5 and her family visited Mount Desert Island for the first time. It was the year after the big fire, and her first impressions remain striking memories. Over the years, she transitioned from being a Summer Kid to a Year-Round Summer Person, so labeled by a local shopkeeper when she moved to MDI in 1979.

“It was a learning experience,” she said the last week of March.

Learning — and teaching — is Lawrence’s trade and she combines them in her latest book, “The Other Island: Ben’s Story.” It is a sequel to her first novel, “Islands of Time”; both have been released via Maine Authors Publishing. The books draw from material collected some 20 years ago for her Boston College doctoral dissertation.

Between then and now, Lawrence has had a publication roller coaster ride, but all her writing has a common theme, one informed by her background in anthropology and sociology.

“I’ve seen the ways people miss each other — don’t see ‘the other,’ if you will,” she said.

Her first novel was conceived as a means to an end, not the beginning of a series. Lawrence has spent years working on a history of her British family’s experience during World War II … and has 35 fat folders of material and several different approaches to writing the narrative to show for it. She had gotten to the point of “circuit overload,” she said, and had to do something different to clear her head.

“I wrote my dissertation about the influence of culture on aspirations in Maine. So I thought, OK, I think I’ll try writing a novel, because there’s a lot of stories left over from the dissertation and I’d learned a bit about Maine history in writing it,” she said.

Her own history, on MDI, and as a teacher at the high school and college levels, as well as in K-12 administration, also provided foundation for the “Islands in Time” story, told from a Summer Person’s perspective, about the daughter of a prominent New York family falling in first-love with a Maine islander from a fishing family.

“Adolescence is a really fascinating time. I wanted to think about how people in adolescence see each other,” said Lawrence.

But three things prodded her to consider writing a sequel. The first is a longtime family connection to the Maine fishing industry: while Lawrence has lived in Camden for two years, her brother, Des FitzGerald, has been here for four decades. Currently Maine’s Small Enterprise Growth Fund entrepreneur-in-residence, FitzGerald was the state’s first aquaculturist. The second is “Looking Out,” by MDI artist William A. Bracken, that graces the cover of the second book. Lawrence bought the painting years ago and it used to hang on her office wall.

“I didn’t think of it as Ben, because I know the man who painted it. But it kind of crept up on me,” she said.

 

Registration for The Net Result is at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, April 8, and the conference will run from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Speakers include  scientists, historians, journalists, activists, consumers and fishermen. The cost is $60 for the general public, with discounts given to museum members, students, teachers and nonprofit employees. For more information or to register, call 548-2529 or visit penobscotmarinemuseum.org

And then, about four years ago, she got lost on a taxi ride, thanks to the cab driver’s new-to-it status and her own self-confessed lack of a sense of direction. For someone who lives to listen, it was time well spent. The driver had recently moved to Rockland from an outer island, where he had been a groundfisherman.

“He had lost his boat, his house, his livelihood … and I began to think, what is happening with the groundfishing,” she said.

At the time, Lawrence was living near Gloucester, Mass., so she knew there was trouble in the fishery. She wanted to know more.

“And one way for me to understand things is to write about them, because I love doing research and I love interviewing people and just listening,” she said. “So I started learning as much as I could.”

She began by picking her brother’s brain, moving on to people he referred her to, reading lots of books and studies and talking to fishermen on the docks. A teacher and professor who has taught writing, anthropology, history and sociology, she was a layperson in this field and knew it.

“I did everything I could think of to learn what was happening, and it became obvious pretty fast to me that Ben was the perfect person, for me, to tell this story,” she said.

The novels’ Ben Bunker, of a line of fishermen and ferry captains, grows up to attend Maine Maritime Academy, see Coast Guard service in Vietnam and get a master’s degree in marine biology.

“I did that partly to make the point that many Maine people are very well educated, and some of that is self-education,” said Lawrence.

The choice also enables the second novel’s narrator, and thus the reader, to see the fishery and its culture from both a fisherman’s and researcher’s perspective. He is, however, an exception to the trend Lawrence explored in her dissertation. In the late 1800s, Maine had the highest literacy rate in the country; in 1994, Maine fourth-graders scored top in the nation in math and second to New Hampshire in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test.

“Well, that’s quite something! And yet, at the same time, Maine kids were going on to college at a rate way down towards the bottom,” said Lawrence.

There were a lot of reasons for that, she continued, some economic and a lot cultural. And it was much more pronounced along the coast, “because people thought they would take over their father’s job.”

“It used to be called 'The Detroit Syndrome' – the idea was you would inherit you father’s job, so you would fish or you would build boats or whatever and you’d apprentice at an early age,” said Lawrence.

But the fisheries that created those jobs are beginning to collapse. And the culture developed from those fisheries is struggling to adapt, as Lawrence observed while doing her research.

“I started going to the Fishermen’s Forum and listening to people who were not hearing each other. I got to know people like Robin Alden, who is head of what’s now Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries; and scientists at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and some of the people who have written books, like Jeff Bolster, who’s going to be at The Net Result. And some see very acutely that there’s a need to have all perspectives on this issue,” she said.

The value of all perspectives is a given for someone of Lawrence’s academic background, and she thinks applying it is crucial, for the groundfish fishery and more.

“It follows something I believe very deeply, that troubles me about the state of our world at the moment: you’ve got to have all sides be part of the conversation. And you’ve got to try as best as you can to meet everybody’s needs in some way and have them be part of the solution,” she said.

So the character Ben has a lot on his shoulders in addition to the emotional road Lawrence takes him and Becky, the eventual Year-Round Summer Person who narrates the first novel, down. She has a couple of readings coming up and is deciding what portions to read to give both equal say.

“My hope for the book is that people will enjoy the love story, because it’s a love of many different kinds. There’s adolescent love and the love of Ben for what he does and of his wife and his family and of where he lives,” said Lawrence.

Writing from a masculine perspective was informed by many experiences, and Lawrence said she hopes Ben’s voice rings true; early readers provided reassurance on that front.

“In some ways, Ben’s voice is a culmination of my teaching boys and men; and living with men, working with men. I ran a construction company on MDI, so I was with a lot of guys,” she said. “They’re wonderful people — and the underscore there is people!”

Lawrence also has a great appreciation for the Coast Guard, which was important for her to convey. She had not realized — “I don’t think many people do” — that the Coast Guard was engaged in Vietnam. One of her sources and readers is a veteran of both.

“I think the Vietnam War was a very scarring, deep, deep experience. I was on one side, marching around the Pentagon, and my partner, Bob, we’ve been together 20 years, he was fighting in Vietnam,” she said.

Going to the Bangor airport to greet troops proved to be a healing experience for Lawrence, enabling her to “forgive myself a little for not understanding what some of those people had been through.”

“We all hide from things. And I think that many men of Ben’s age hide from what must be just an extraordinary experience of being at war,” she said.

The back of “The Other Island: Ben’s Story” is filled with a bibliography, a glossary and a historical timeline of the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank fisheries. Lawrence said she knows that’s unusual for a novel, but “it’s what Ben knows and it’s what he is and I think it helps show that fishing is incredibly complicated.

“It’s dangerous, you’ve got to keep focused, and I’m talking groundfishing, as well as lobstering,” she said. “The changes that are affecting their lives are changes that we all need to pay attention to, because we’re part of the reason for them.”

Paying attention is what The Net Effect is about. Lawrence is looking forward to meeting Jeffrey Bolster, whose book “The Mortal Sea” has been a touchstone for her. His advocacy for the ocean is informed by how rivers were treated not that long ago.

“We were dumping anything because it was just water going out to sea and it was all going to go away. Not only laypeople thought that … scientists inadvertently prolonged our feeling we could dump whatever we wanted into any body of water,” she said.

Her own attention to the coastal culture clashes also sounds an alarm. Lawrence’s stint as co-owner of a construction and real estate company on MDI revealed early on that many island year-round houses are ending up owned by people who use them for a fraction of the year.

“In Northeast Harbor and some of these communities that have relied so heavily on tourism, it’s now wakeup time,” she said.

She hopes her novels also help people From Away learn a little bit about the pressures on people who live along the coast “and want to have a sustainable life that their children and grandchildren can enjoy, as well.” The new novel, which saw its debut at last month’s Maine Fishermen’s Forum, has an epilogue that offers a somewhat utopian vision of what island life could be, for both natives and summer folk.

“In some ways, it’s the most important chapter in the book! If we really start working together and thinking about how we’re going to do this, we’ll find ways,” Lawrence said.

And the time to find a way forward is now. Lawrence said she will write one more book about Ben and Becky and the lobster fishery, which has become, of necessity, predominant this century. She worries what will happen if, like the cod and other groundfish fisheries, it crashes here as it has in waters to the south.

“What are the kids who are now 15 going to do in 20 years, when they’re 35, if they haven’t learned some other skills?” she asked.

A few years ago, when she and her partner were part of the crowd considering a move to Ireland, she did what she does best — research. She compared Maine and Ireland in many areas and found a striking contrast on the education front.

“It was as if, 40 or so years ago, Ireland had looked at itself and said, what’ve we got? We’ve got great scenery and wonderful people; let’s invest in the people. So you can go to college tuition-free,” she said.

“At the same time, Maine asked the same question, came up with the same assets and said let’s invest in the scenery,” she said. “I think that’s something we need to rethink.”

In addition to The Net Result, Lawrence will share her books Friday morning, April 7, on Maine Coast TV’s “Chris Wolf Show”; Wednesday night, April 19, at Lincolnville Community Library; a Sunday afternoon tea, May 21, at Camden Public Library; and a Maine Writers Talk session July 25 at Belfast Free Library. For more information, visit barbaralawrence.com. The books also are available on Amazon and maineauthorspublishing.com; at Owl & Turtle in Camden; the Island Institute’s Archipelago in Rockland; and at Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shops in six coastal communities, including Camden.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Apr 08, 2017 18:37

Can not wait to read The Net Result. Interesting to read that Ireland invested in people and in the US, Maine said lets invest in the scenery. WOW!



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Staff Profile

Dagney C. Ernest
A&E editor for Courier Publications, LLC
(207) 594-4401/4407, ext. 115
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Dagney has been providing Courier coverage of the local arts scene since 1985 and has helmed the multi-paper A&E section since it debuted in 2003. She has been a local performing artist, community and professional for more than 30 years; and spent a decade writing, producing and announcing on-air for several Midcoast radio stations. When not in the NewsNest, Dagney likes to be in motion.

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