Life seems to come in two chapters: a time when we are young, looking forward to the future; and that time when we are older— glancing back, remembering, trying to stave off tomorrow’s arrival. In Deborah Gould’s novel,The Eastern: Later On, we find a story that is woven from the fabric of both young and old. Beautifully told, this story of family life constantly moves forward while memories linger around every corner of house, field and stone of the families living on the Eastern River in Pittston, Maine, from 1866 to 1920.
As she did in her previous book, The Eastern: The Early Years, Gould again hits the mark by continuing the saga, which begins just a year or so after the end of the Civil War. There is an immediate tidal wave of imagery that, in its wake, brings the reader into another time and place. Having once lived in the very place she writes about, Gould imbues the story with a personal embrace that resonates, placing the reader onto the page to share these lives in this river valley.
Presently a resident of Brunswick, Gould previously lived in one of the original farmhouses in the Pittston area. While living there, Gould found records of the previous owner, Joel Thompson, who built the home in 1811. Her fascination and desire to learn more led Gould to unearth a treasure trove of documents and information about the other families living in the area.
For those of us lucky enough to have read the previous book, this next chapter is a joy to behold and does not disappoint. For those finding these families and their stories for the first time, Gould’s ability to place the reader deep within fauna and flora, time and place, amidst the people living along the Eastern River, provides a great read all by it self.
The families are all here again—Blodgett, Call, Crocker, Thompson and Stilphen—striving to make a life in rural America; Gould adeptly gives them a voice and crafts their conversations in prose that sings. These characters feel real because they are real. There is maturity in this writing as the author, the families and the story are older and, in many ways, wiser. Amidst this rural landscape are families dealing with a day-to-day existence in a world ready to change in a big way. Marriages and newborns are plentiful; death is here, too, sometimes surprisingly sudden.
“Polly wiped her hands on her dishtowel, went over to her rocker and pulled it closer to the south window, sat down, and put her hands to her head, tried to ease her headache. —She thought she heard geese calling, thought she saw some flying steady and low over the house and down the slope to the Eastern, winging true through the soft snowfall. I’d like to go with them she thought. She leaned her head back against the chair rail, closed her eyes, and died.”
With the changing family dynamics clearly detailed in census information listed at the end of each chapter, development of the land and community is easily captured in and around the river valley. An industrial revolution is also beginning, and its birth does not go unnoticed as it seeps into the fields and folds of life.
“The two men stood together in the field, watched the horses step in fine rhythm, even and solid, along the track. The blade clicked and chittered back and forth, and the grass fell smooth and easy over the backside of the bar, lay in waves in Samuel Crocker’s field. ‘Jesus,’ Daniel Blodgett said, nearly whispering. ‘Will you look at that!’”
Gould’s use of historical and “infomercial” type information at the beginning of each chapter, such as newspaper headlines, product advertisements, catalog descriptions, even weather reports, though subtle, is a powerful tool which brings clarity to the story. These timely nudges provide the framework, allowing each chapter to feel like a day spent with family. Whether good or bad, we are there stoking a fire, dressing a wound, or sipping tea by a window and watching young ones play in the yard.
Where book one focused squarely on the families working as units for themselves and together as a community bartering goods, sharing wisdom and helping each other thrive, book two is about change. The change within the families is brought on by war, shifts in societal ways and the onslaught of the industrial revolution. This change is the threshold between the days of young and old for all of the families.
It is in the family interactions where the strength of the book lies, and the impending arrival of technology on each doorstep is clearly heard in these conversations. The joy of a washing machine, the uncertainty of a field cutter, the automobile’s arrival and unionization in the form of a grange foretells the transformation of the family farm and the industry that is to come. We see and feel for these families, as some are reluctant to accept change and others fight to embrace the future. Change is that silent family member wherever life happens to be.
All stories have a beginning, and most have an ending. But sometimes the story continues on. At the beginning of this story we see family life resume after the end of one war. Old ways give way to new as daily life continues until another war is on the doorstep, this one supposedly to end all others. The story of these families living along the Eastern River will continue on in some way, because the past, if given the chance, gives life to the future. Memories of time and place, sons and daughters, and writers such as Gould will keep stories like this one from being forgotten. Scott Stilphen knows this too, as he opens the sheep shed and stares out at the meadow.
“Time turns over and over, he thought, and we turn with it. We are here for a while, and then we are gone; even then, there will be this land, this river, and our lives remembered.”
Maine Authors Publishing, 2018, Softcover $17.95