And more aware I am, now that I have finished this beautiful work by Elaine Ford. Ford is no longer with us, but the totality of work she left to be read and savored allows readers the opportunity to get to know her and how she viewed the world, specifically Maine. This piece, her last collection of stories titled This Time Might Be Different: Stories of Maine, places an exclamation mark on an exceptional body of work.
As noted from the book’s jacket, Ford(1938 – 2017) is the award-winning author of five novels, including The Playhouse, Ivory Bright, Missed Connections, Monkey Bay, and Life Designs, as well as a book of short stories called The American Wife. Her short fiction has appeared widely in literary magazines and newspapers. Ford taught creative writing and literature at the University of Maine for nearly two decades. She was also a wife, mother and grandmother, world traveler and Harvard alumna.
The 15 stories cover a broad range of topics about life and death decisions, obsession, factory work, secrets, friendship, second chances and a comical robbery. They are as varied as the characters we meet, who are honed perfectly by an extraordinarily talented writer. We want to know these people and probably already do. The stories are spare, yet filled with emotion; they are unique, yet share the commonality of a place. This place with all of its grittiness, beauty and hardscrabble way of life is a very real place called Maine.
In the story “Demons,” a strange girl takes a seat in a basement office of a church and confronts the woman behind the desk with Bible verse and questions about consequence. Ford begins this story at the end and moves the reader backwards in time to the beginning of the story and to the genesis of the story’s characters. Through this backward time capsule we meet the girl named Molly, her mother and the husband of Denia who is confronted by Molly. — ‘“So you’re a preacher now,’ the girl said. ‘Diploma and everything.’
“Where could Denia have encountered this person before? She’d remember the hair so blonde it was almost white, if not the girl’s face. Denia wasn’t especially good with names or faces. ‘I’m afraid I’m not sure who you are, please remind me.’
‘“Good question. Who am I?”’ The story begs the question: Do our decisions have everlasting consequences?
“Bent Reeds” is a beautiful story about the pureness certain friendships can harbor when given the test of time. Owen buys land from Millard at below-market value and builds his home. Over time, the two are inseparable, until circumstances for both intercede. Their friendship will be tested and be bent by chance and illness but never break. —“An odd friendship, everybody said so: the dig-in-your-heels chair of the deacons, whose family lived in town six generations — and the easy-going doctor of divinity, who’d happened into town one July on vacation from the community college where he taught philosophy, and never left because the parish needed a preacher.”
And “Elwood’s Last Job” is a comical tale of a strange robbery with an even stranger thief. —“They didn’t hear him over the roar of the washers and the flopping of clothes in the dryers, so he said it again, louder this time. ‘Nobody move. This is a stickup.’” The ensuing verbal exchange between Elwood and three women who are trying to do their laundry is hilarious and yet seems so very possible and real.
Ford’s husband, Arthur Boatin, for whom the book is dedicated, says that when asked if she ever thought about writing a memoir, his wife would respond and say that it is all there in her books.“What she meant by her memoir answer is not that her fiction is autobiographical. It is rarely autobiographical, and few of her characters are portraits of real people,” says Boatin. “Rather, I think Elaine was saying that one can find in her fiction what she understood about human nature and experience, her opinion of whether and how people can shape their own destinies, her idea of what’s funny, what’s sad, and what’s dumb.” Boatin believes all of Ford’s writing is her memorial.
Author Jim Nichols recalls meeting Ford at a reading for an upcoming anthology of contemporary Maine fiction, and an immediate friendship formed. He says of Ford, “We talked intermittently about the craft, and her thoughts were always valuable and were reflected in her prose which was somehow both economic and lyrical. Such as, when she wrote, ‘She could feel Emma’s watchful, worried eyes on her, and she lifted a shoulder, as if she could flick off her mother’s glance like a bothersome insect.’ So good, so concise, so real. I will always miss talking to Elaine, but it’s some consolation that I can at least still hear her voice in the honest and elegant stories in this new collection.”
I am sorry of never having had the pleasure of meeting Elaine Ford. After reading this collection of stories and listening to others, my sense is that our meeting would have been a moment filled with personal stories about our families, friends and everything in between. These stories between two new friends would probably be shared at her kitchen table while drinking hot coffee amidst plenty of laughter. And our conversation most assuredly would have been about a place called Maine.
Islandport Press, 2017, Softcover $16.95