MAINE AUTHOR BOOK REVIEW
LANDSLIDE by Susan Conley
In the summer of 2021 (hence the beach photo), I was fortunate not only to read this Maine-based book by author, Susan Conley, but to also attend an author event (sponsored by Mockingbird Bookshop in Bath), where Susan shared her insight about the writing process and the research that went into this multi-faceted and insightful story.
Some of the questions that informed the concept and story included: Can Maine endure the changes that are occurring along our coastline? Who are we as Mainers if the fishing industry and culture is forced to change (i.e. what happens when working waterfronts are gobbled up by international corporations)? How do we contend with what is good and challenging for families living in a small town?
Beside the book being set in coastal Maine – not far from where I live, the story alone caught my eye. It touches on several topics of personal interest – small-town living, family challenges, Maine’s complicated fishing industry strains, and marital relationships. The story is fiction, but the subjects are rooted in today’s top news stories.
The story begins after a horrific accident leaves Jill’s husband (Kit) recovering in a hospital in Nova Scotia. Jill, a local documentary filmmaker, and her sons remain at their home on a small family island. Jill lives in Kit’s world in Maine – a Mainer herself but ‘from-away’ as she is from another town in the State. Jill grapples with the challenges of parenting sons who are themselves fearful of their father’s condition and absence, along with the strains that her husband’s work and recovery has on their marriage and lives.
“I am trying not to think about my husband. He is renowned on the peninsula for his gargantuan energy and for being a fisherman who doesn’t come home empty-handed. Ten days ago his boat engine exploded off Georges Bank… Kit told me last week he didn’t know who he was anymore now that he couldn’t fish.”
“The newspapers write about all the real estate money pouring into our state and how good the restaurants are. But most fishermen I know are selling their trawlers and fending off lenders… almost none of the fishermen here can afford to fish anymore.”
The accident illuminates several issues lurking under the waters for this couple. I appreciated the candid peek inside a relationship like Jill and Kit’s. Like all fishing families around the world, fear of death is a constant weight – superstition is woven into the fishing world’s vernacular. I wanted to learn more about this part of the occupation and family life and the author provides this throughout the book.
“I hadn’t wanted him to leave. I told him this. I knew our separation would feel more concrete, because he’d be away much longer this time. And this is what happened… It looks like an omen now, because he was injured. But what I wanted was for him to sell his boat. I didn’t tell him this… ”.It was a matter of pride for him to go. Which was also a matter of money. When is marriage not in some way a question of money?”
The story weaves between Jill and Kit’s relationship and their sons’ struggles during this time that their father is away. The book peers into several topics that are likely not limited to just living in Maine, but these are matters that I have personally experienced: Misconceptions about Maine or BEING from Maine; What it means to live in a small town – where your extended family has resided for generations; being an ‘outsider’ in Maine. Susan balances these curiosities clearly throughout the book. She offers glimpses into the sweet, quiet corners of our coastline communities. But also shares the unsettling uncertainty for the future of a rich culture that we are proud of and have identified with for centuries here in Maine.
While the book alone cannot resolve the macro topics our culture is facing here in Maine, the writer provides an authentic expose of how these prominent issues impact a single fishing family –to help us better understand what these unique lives look like from the inside. She shows us how the lines are stretched and ultimately how they are held together.
I love reading a book set in Maine – even more so when written by a Maine author who grew up here (Susan grew up near Bath). When I recognize an image that is unique to one of our towns, I feel personally connected to the characters and their struggles. If you appreciate reading a story that is as much about its place as its characters, you will find that here in Landslide. And yes, the title references Fleetwood Mac’s song about love, loss, and strength.
Of Note: The author acknowledges the generous time the Maine Coast Fisherman’s Association and other Maine fishermen spent sharing their knowledge for this book. These organizations advocate for and support our fishermen and women who risk their lives every day on the unforgiving Atlantic ocean. For more information check out www.mainecoastfishermen.org.
As always, if you wish to read this book yourself, please consider purchasing through Bookshop.org to help support independent bookstores.
Alfred A Knopf, New York (2021). Hardcover 263 pages. Personal copy purchased from Mockingbird Bookshop.