From a distance, the islands are mysterious, pushing us away, daring us to forget them. Yet still, this parting ribbon of blue water is like a magnet, the eternal call of a siren that attracts our thoughts. And in a remote area like Down East, the islands are usually shrouded in mist – a billowing veil that hides their secrets. We wonder: who lives there, what is life like there – who loves it, who hates it and, above all, what stories could the islands harbor?
In “Island Secrets: Stories from the Coast of Maine”, Catherine JS Lee draws from her own island experience a captivating journey of island life through a splendid collection of short stories. Lee is a seventh-generation Mainer who writes, teaches, and has had her short stories and haiku published in a variety of print and online journals. Lee lives in Eastport.
From a dozen well-crafted stories comes an abundance of situations from the life of a place known as Way Down East and its two fictional islands, Spruce Island and East Haven. One is a working island where fishing is daily life; the other is a summer retreat for those just looking to dip their toes in the East. Separately, the stories show a penchant for emotional response to island life; together they are the testimony of an observant writer comfortable with it all.
Lee evokes characters from then and now, presenting them and their situations as they were intended, with some of the stories written over 20 years ago. Sticking to the edict that Downeasters don’t like change, Lee gives us characters untarnished by time, feeling real and essential to every story.
In “Never Love a Fisherman”, the heartbreaking call that any fisherman’s wife can receive while her husband is at sea is the catalyst that brings all members of a fishing community to a sudden realization of the fragility of a life lived on the water.
Rainey Faulkingham is the fourth generation of his family to summer in East Haven. She thought she would spend the summer there forever, until she met Justin, a fisherman from Spruce Island. They fall in love, get married, and a fisherman’s life takes hold of them both as each waits for something to happen, something that will eventually change the plans they’ve made.
Rainey is working on her latest children’s book when her husband’s stern man’s wife walks through her front door saying, “Something’s happened to our guys, Rainey. From this point, the story chronicles the unconscious tremors of reality that permeate every second of time as the search for survivors begins.
“Sheila Mac said that was how life worked. And she was right, Rainey thought. We make our plans and we do the best we can with what we have been given. It’s like getting on a plane to Paris and ending up in Jamaica – not what we expected, a different world, different beauty, but still a worthwhile trip.
In “Island to Island,” the dichotomy of two islands – East Haven and Manhattan – takes a back seat as the mystery of chance plants its feet firmly on both shores, giving the reader a front row seat to watch it all unfold. . Artist and baker Lucas Castile returns to his grandfather’s island home in East Haven. Recently divorced, his popular East Village bakery gone, and his art stalled, Lucas searches for something. Slowly, events give way to chance, his art is reborn, and flour, salt and yeast find their way back to East Haven. Something else too will be part of Lucas, amidst the freshness of baked bread, splashes of paint and a bountiful sea breeze.
“No matter what, Lucas finally believes that everything will be fine. All the false starts, dumb picks, and missed matches don’t matter anymore. He gives Riley a thumbs up, then turns his face to the breeze through the open window as they cruise down the pavement, heading towards the jam music and the future that lies beyond.
In “Gone Like Sea Smoke”, while on a shakedown cruise of their scallop dredger, Five Sisters, Steve Nelligan talks to his wife Heather about a decision he has made. He decided to replace his reliable deckhand with his not-so-reliable brother, Skip, back home after four years in the military. What follows, amid family ties and marital secrets, is the unpredictable nature of life both on and off the water.
“What I’m thinking now is how it can all fade away so quickly. All of these things so beyond reason that they slip away just when you’re sure you’ve finally got a hold of them. All of these things They’re like sea smoke, if you think about it, the way it can drift through your fingers as it darkens even solid ground.
Place creates person, and a person can crystallize or obscure the brilliance of a place. Lee’s characters imbue each story with an essence of realism and flaws and all, while maintaining a constant hold on the past. Such is the beauty of storytelling, to create a sense of immediacy, while maintaining a connection to the past within this common sea called life. This superb collection of stories does just that and more.
“Island Secrets: Stories from the Maine Coast”
By Catherine JS Lee
Sea Smoke Press, 2022, softcover, $14.95