5 Great Books Set in the State of Maine That We Love

5 Great Books Set in the State of Maine That We Love

Wednesday, 27 September, 2023

Maine might be best known for its rugged coast and nickname of The Pine Tree State (with good reason: 90% of it is covered in majestic pines.) But don’t sleep on its literary bone fides (Stephen King, Harriet Beecher Stowe, E.B. White, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow), historic lighthouses (67 of them!), and tempting local cuisine (Hello, lobster rolls, blueberries, and Needhams candy!).

Also of note: Maine is home to between 60,000 and 70,000 moose, along with black bears, white-tailed deer, river otters, beavers, foxes, mink, and the star-nosed mole.

These five books explore all that the great state of Maine has to offer with stories of big adventure and small-town life, heartbreak and enduring love, Gothic hauntings and the foibles of modern life.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Maine: Lighthouses, Lobster Rolls, and the King of Horror.


Grange House: A Novel - Sarah Blake

Grange House
> Sarah Blake

If you like your white-washed New England Victorian mansions to come with a whole lotta backstory, and you’re attracted to a Wilkie Collins/Henry James vibe, this coming-of-age story is for you.

Meet Maisie, the 17-year-old heroine of our story. It’s summer 1896, and she’s returning with her family to Grange House, a mansion-turned-hotel on Maine’s coast.

It’s the Gilded Age in America, and names like Rockefeller, Carnegie, JP Morgan, Vanderbilt, and Standford have clout. This is the world in which Maisie’s family lives. Until now, her well-heeled industrialist father has been a good dad: He’s given Maisie a classical education and encouraged her to think for herself, much to her mother’s dismay. (Mother would prefer Maisie to be prim, proper, and ladylike, thank you very much.)

Now that Maisie has reached an appropriate age, all the adults are agreed it’s time for her to fulfill her destiny — to marry appropriately, make some babies, and bask in the reflected glow of her husband.

But Maisie wants none of this. And that fire is fueled by the proper spinster, authoress, and grande dame of Grange House, Miss Grange herself. She bequeaths her journals to Maisie so the young girl can start unlocking the mysteries of the past.

The story is told first-person through Maisie’s teenage voice — plucky, hormone-fueled, sometimes dreamy, often confused — and Miss Grange’s atmospheric diaries. She recounts her own experiences of being a young girl at Grange House, and there is plenty to keep the proceedings delightfully creepy.

This is a romp of a read. There are dark woods, deep fogs that play tricks on the eyes, and a raging storm that batters the coast. There are enigmatic conversations, swooning, fainting, deathbed requests, switched identities, a mysterious grave, and drowned lovers clasping each other for eternity. {more}

Here was a room in which a thought could hover and remain. It ran the length of the house, a pair of high windows at either end where the roof came to a peak, so that when one looked out, one had the sensation of standing in the crow’s nest of a clipper ship. Indeed, standing at either of the windows gave an onlooker the full glory of a sweeping view: Out the front pair, one saw the wide swath of green lawn reaching down to meet the white rock of the shoreline, and thence to the sea; and out the back, the constellation of color shifted as the sky crossed the tangle of pine trees that formed the perimeter of the woods behind Grange House, the road to the town running along this edge like the crooked parting in a small child’s hair. — Sarah Blake


The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit - Michael Finkel

The Stranger in the Woods
> Michael Finkel

This is the true story of a guy who walked into the woods of Maine, alone, unprepared in 1986 — and did not come out again until April 2013.

In 27 years of living outdoors in pristine solitude, Christopher Knight spoke to one person, once, during that time. When a hiker walked by, Knight said simply, ‘Hi.’

Knight survived by understanding the woods and by being an excellent thief — both in the sense that he was good at getting his hands on what he needed, and in the sense that he was, as much as it’s possible to be one, a conscientious thief. To keep himself afloat, he’d break into locals’ cabins when they were away and steal low-cost items with high value to him: a sleeping bag, a year’s worth of National Geographic, all the batteries in the house, paperbacks. At one point, he stole someone’s backpack from their home but left behind the passports that were inside.

Knight was really good at evading detection. People took a long time to accept that someone was out there. But when the community came to accept someone might be living in the woods, four law enforcement agencies began the hunt. There were foot searches and flyovers. At one point, they got a picture of him stealing from someone’s refrigerator. But after 27 years, they didn’t even have a name to attach to the face.

He was only caught when a local game warden, Terry Hughes, borrowed high-tech surveillance equipment from a friend at a government agency, set it up a campground, and waited.

This remarkable book begins with Knight’s arrest. Like everything else he does, it’s quiet: Hughes catches him in the act, and Knight goes without incident. When Hughes starts asking questions, he’s unsure whether to believe Knight because his story is so extraordinary. Knight says he doesn’t have an ID or an address or a vehicle, and he lives in the woods. And it’s Maine. Winter in Maine is serious business — howling winds, well below zero, wet, and cold. When Hughes asks how long he’s been in the woods, Knight pauses and asks, ‘What year was the Chernobyl nuclear-plant disaster?’

This is a gripping yarn that doesn’t supply easy answers but does paint a vivid portrait of Maine in all its brutal beauty. {more}

The trees are mostly skinny where the hermit lives, but they’re tangled over giant boulders with deadfall everywhere like pick-up sticks. There are no trails. Navigation, for nearly everyone, is a thrashing, branch-snapping ordeal, and at dark the place seems impenetrable.

This is when the hermit moves. He waits until midnight, shoulders his backpack and his bag of break-in tools, and sets out from camp. A penlight is clipped to a chain around his neck, but he doesn’t need it yet. Every step is memorized.

He threads through the forest with precision and grace, twisting, striding, hardly a twig broken. On the ground there are still mounds of snow, sun-cupped and dirty, and slicks of mud—springtime, central Maine—but he avoids all of it. He bounds from rock to root to rock without a bootprint left behind.

One print, the hermit fears, might be enough to give him away. Secrecy is a fragile state, a single time undone and forever finished. A bootprint, if you’re truly committed, is therefore not allowed, not once. Too risky. So he glides like a ghost between the hemlocks and maples and white birches and elms until he emerges at the rocky shoreline of a frozen pond. — Michael Finkel


The Midcoast: A Novel - Adam White

The Midcoast
> Adam White

This sharp, raw crime novel explores life in the small tourist town of Damariscotta in southeastern Maine. It’s known as the oyster capital of New England, but the drama in this story centers around a lobsterman named Ed Thatch.

Our narrator is Andrew, an English teacher and aspiring writer. He’d broken free of Damariscotta — living in California, New York, and Boston, where he met his equally creative wife. But now, the cost of city life being what it is, they’ve moved back with their kids and are trying to figure out how they fit into this community.

Andrew’s history with Ed goes back to high school when Andrew worked at the Thatch family’s lobster business. Andrew always says he worked with Ed — Ed corrects him, none too gently, saying that Andy worked for him. That tells you what you need to know about their dynamic.

Now, decades later, The Thatch’s rule the scene in Damariscotta. Ed owns real estate, his wife is active in town politics, his son is a cop, and his daughter is a student at Amherst (a.k.a., a little Ivy). And Andy can’t figure out how this happened. Because the Ed he knew was just a work-a-day lobsterman with a chip on his shoulder and a halfway crappy boat.

As the story moves back and forth in time, we see how it all happened — and the increasingly self-destructive moves Ed made to elevate his family. Rich with details of life on the water and a New England sensibility, this is a searing exploration of the things humans will do for misguided love and loyalty. {more}

As we made our way into the backyard, it became clear that Ed had taken the concept of pre-game reception in a whole new direction. What we were stumbling into was more like a spectacular midcoast-themed carnival. There was a train of folding tables dressed in purple gingham tablecloths, a trailer-length grill blowing smoke into the sky, and a massive white tent strung with yards and yards of hanging lightbulbs. There was even an inflatable lobster the size of an elephant. Someone had wedged a lacrosse stick into the lobster’s left claw, and visitors were taking pictures of each other standing next to it as if they had slain the poor thing. The rest of the meadow was overtaken by players, parents, and coaches, all of them wearing purple… we waded through the small clusters of guests, saying hello to anyone we knew, all of whom looked a little confused by the surrounding festivities but willing to go with the flow in exchange for an open bar… — Adam White


Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches - John Hodgman

> John Hodgman

John Hodgman has had a strange and unlikely career. He started as a literary agent, became an author, and eventually found himself on TV as a contributor to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart — not the path you might expect for a middle-aged dude with a powerful nerd vibe.

But his brain is as sharp as his mustache is floppy. In this collection of essays, he gets real about the issues of going through a midlife crisis — but because it’s Hodgman, it’s painfully funny.

He wrestles with being a good parent and with the death of his mother. He shares stories from his childhood because he wants to talk about his life now more meaningfully. And about halfway through the book, he moves to Maine with his family. ‘Maine is a beautiful place,’ he writes, ‘that I paradoxically want to hoard to myself and share with everyone I meet.’

He and his wife buy a house. They win a rowboat in an auction. They meet their neighbors, whom he initially finds creepy — ‘like waking an ancient pack of vampires.’ He delves into the world of freshwater clams and the notion that the waters of Maine are ‘made of hate and want to kill you.’

Like pine logs crackling in a fireplace, his sense of humor is dry, inviting, warm, and prone to flares. Reading this book is like hanging out with a friend who’s navigating a rough patch, but makes you laugh all the same. {more}

Because the waters of Maine are made of hate and want to kill you. The ocean in Maine is traumatically cold. If you make the mistake of going into it, every cell in your body will begin shouting the first half of the word “hypothermia” into your brain; the second half will simply be frozen tears. And the beaches of Maine offer no relief as you launch yourself back onto shore, because the beaches of Maine are made out of jagged stones shaped like knives. Wherever the shoreline is merely slopes of smooth, unpunishing granite, Maine compensates by encrusting it with sharp barnacles and sea snails. No matter how careful you are, you cannot avoid crushing some of them under your feet. You become death when you walk on a beach in Maine, and every step is a sea snail genocide. — John Hodgman


Almost, Maine - John Cariani

Almost, Maine
> John Cariani

In the small town of Almost, Maine, on this particular Friday night, something unusual is happening. The Northern Lights are dancing in the sky, and the inhabitants of Almost are running straight into love, in all its colorful forms.

Author John Cariani is an actor and a playwright. He was on Law & Order for five seasons as forensic expert Julian Beck, starred in the Broadway musical Something Rotten and was nominated for a Tony for his portrayal of Motel the Tailor in the 2004 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof.

But before he did all of that, he wrote a play called Almost, Maine. One of the most popular plays in the United States, it’s been performed by 100 professional theater companies and more than 5000 community and school productions. Now that play is a novel, and it’s just as compelling on the page as it is on the stage.

The story unfolds in a series of linked vignettes. Like a real-life small town, all of the characters are connected to each other through friendship, romance, work, history, and proximity.

Two teenagers — Ginette and her best friend Paul — are realizing that they are maybe more than just friends. As Ginette walks through town to think over this momentous change, she passes the town rec center, the Moose Paddy bar, the frozen lake where people ice skate, and a boarding house owned by Ma Dudley. As she passes each location, we get a peek at what’s happening to the people inside.

And what’s happening is that everyone in Almost is falling in or out of love in various ways.

Thanks to the Northern Lights, everything that happens is so literal that it comes all the way back to magical. Hearts physically break. People actually fall into love. A character that’s losing hope gets physically smaller.

Within this enchanted world, John Cariani explores the rugged beauty and the daily difficulty of living somewhere like rural Maine. Small towns can be a tough place to change your relationships with others — and with yourself. Perceptions are set, memories are long. But on this Friday night, the Northern Lights offer a little help. {more}

There is a place in northern Maine that is so far north, it’s almost not in the United States. It’s almost in Canada. But not quite. Not many people live there. Not much seems to happen there. And the things that do happen there seem pretty ordinary. Especially to the people who live there.

But some extraordinary things did happen there once — on a Friday in the middle of the winter, not too long ago. Or maybe it was a long time ago. No one quite remembers.

Actually, no one is even sure that the extraordinary things even happened. And no one is even sure that the place actually exists.

But it’s somewhere we’ve all been.

It’s a place called Almost.’ — John Cariani


Top image courtesy of Ann Stryzhekin/Shutterstock.

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A short list of awesome things in Maine: Lonely lighthouses, blueberries, just-caught lobster, great poetry, kayaking, stargazing, spine-tingling horror tales, pine trees, moose, crashing Atlantic waves, and more.
Oh, what a sweet combo a charming book and some chocolate can be! The novel 'Almost, Maine' invites you to believe in the magic of love, the Northern Lights, and that hope and joy find you when you least expect it.
The poet's atmospheric poem blurs the divide between memories and haunting. He casts the 'harmless phantoms' — who glide by our sides and sit at our fires — as silent visitors, forging our connection to the beyond.
Is it a cookie? Is it a cake? A whoopie pie is two large, soft chocolate cookies held together with a luscious buttercream filling. Its origin may be in dispute, but we can all agree that it's a truly American treat.
What better way to celebrate National Poetry month than a poem called 'Travel'?! Edna St. Millay's brief poem packs an emotional wallop, capturing yearning and the romance of escape in just three perfect stanzas.

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