Cathie Pelletier visits with The One-Way Bridge

October 29th, 2013 by Catherine Fisher

On a day that mirrored so perfectly the vibrant fall foliage on the cover of Cathie Pelletier’s new novel, The One-Way Bridge, the author made the journey from her home in Allagash to the Collection for a spirited reading and book discussion. Pelletier has recently moved back to her home town and lives with her 94 year-old father in the house in which she was born, with many other members of the Pelletier clan nearby.

From the remove of living for years in Tennessee and then Canada, Pelletier has written five novels set in the fictional Maine town of Mattagash, inspired by Allagash. Some loyal readers may notice that a few of the characters from previous Mattagash novels make cameo appearances in The One-Way Bridge.

Before reading from the book, Pelletier shared a bit of background on both her town and the process of bringing to life the characters it has inspired. There are three one-way bridges in Allagash, we learned: one that crosses the Allagash River, where her grandfather ran the ferry; another stretching over the St. John River; and a third, tiny, one-way bridge across the Little Black River. “I had never put a bridge in my fiction, ever, let alone a one-way bridge,” she said. “A bridge is a metaphor, anyway – a kind of trite metaphor – but a one-way bridge? That means there’s only one way to go, one way to think, one way to live. And if you go against the current, against the bridge, well, then you have a novel.”

It was back in 1991 that Pelletier first conceived of the novel’s main characters, Orville Craft, a local mailman, and Harry Plunkett, a Vietnam Veteran and a thorn in Orville’s side. Late one night in Nashville, Tennessee, where she was then living, Pelletier saw a news clip on CNN about a one-way bridge being swept away “like tinsel in an ice jam.” And it wasn’t just any bridge over any river, but the bridge over the St. John River in her hometown of Allagash, Maine. She made notes for a possible future novel then, telling herself that she really needed to write the book one day. The characters and the project went with her as she moved from Tennessee to the Eastern Townships of Quebec. It was in Canada that she began seriously to write the full draft, completing a version that looked very different from the published book today. “When I returned to Allagash, Maine, in 2009, I did the final draft and deleted 350-plus pages. This novel was hard to write. I’m an organic writer. Most times, I don’t know what’s going to happen until the reader does.”

As she began to read an excerpt from the book, she paused and said, “By the way, I hate to read from a Mattagash book. It’s full of characters and it’s full of stories and plots and it’s difficult to choose what to read. And it’s full of sadness and humor, so what do you read? If I were to choose what to read from this book, I would read the Vietnam passages, but then that’s depressing. I would choose to read the sad stuff.” Pelletier has also written several novels outside of the Mattagash books, both under her own name and the pseudonym K.C. McKinnon, and by comparison, she says that, “When I read from the books I set, say, in Bixley, with only one protagonist, it’s so much easier.”

The Mattagash denizens whose lives she portrays are drawn “out of thin air,” Pelletier says, but as they reveal themselves to her, they become real people. “They come with lives of their own, these characters, and they all converge.” Pelletier is clear that her characters are not portraits of actual citizens of Allagash. “My fictional characters would be so offended if they learned they were being compared to real people!” Paraphrasing novelist Alice Munro’s words on the degree to which fiction displays reality, Pelletier explained, “We all take a little bit of starter clay from the real world. We all do that. It’s usually so minor in my case. It’s usually something about me.” Because there is such a time lag between completing a novel and its actual publication, “you pray that nothing that has happened in the book happens in reality, because people will think that’s where you got it.”

Pelletier’s late mother used to enjoy spotting bits of real life in her daughter’s books. In the pages of Pelletier’s 1986 The Funeral Makers, the first in the Mattagash books, her mother picked up on the appearance of such props as a little red rocking chair and a glow-in-the-dark Jesus nightlight. “That was your little chair! And that was our nightlight,” her mother said. “I still have the rocking chair,” Pelletier says. “Most of these things come from our childhood. Eudora Welty said we write out of the first ten years of our lives. I certainly feel that way; emotionally, anyway.”

In 2010, Pelletier published A is for Allagash, written with her father, Louis Pelletier, as a memoir of his life. “It was a book I did to endorse his life and his ways. For example, my father believes in the curative power of Easter water. Each Easter morning, from the time he was a boy, he would get up before dawn and head for a river or a brook, a place of moving water. He’d dip a pail or jar three times into the stream and keep the water from the third dip. The water’s powers were believed to last forever and they’d use it to treat illness and bless homes. My father also believes you can stop blood if you know the charm. I grew up with this strange mélange of folklore and technology and superstition. And now I realize it was a rich background, a rich canvas.”

Pelletier finds it hard to believe that she’s just sold her 12th book. “My gosh! It feels like yesterday that The Funeral Makers was coming out, but that was 1986!” It became clear that many members of our group had been loyal readers since the beginning.

In 2003, the MWWC acquired Pelletier’s papers. Then-curator Cally Gurley was present at this reading, and shared a bit about the process of acquiring the collection, rich with material dating back to the author’s childhood, and continuing to grow in the present day. Pelletier laughed and said, “Cally calls it the archives. I call it the stuff my cats were sleeping on! My mother saved everything I ever wrote.”

Pelletier welcomed questions from the audience, and the first was the simple, direct query, “Why Edna? Why did you name the character Edna? It’s such an old-fashioned name.” “Well, a lot of these names are coming back,” Pelletier answered. “But not Edna!” the guest insisted.

“I named her Edna in the ‘80s. I had to come up with plain names for characters because it was set in rural, rural Maine. My mother would say, ‘They’re going to think that’s Tom so-and-so or Sara so-and-so. Can’t you change that?’” Names of characters are important to Pelletier. “‘Mom,’ I’d say, ‘I can’t name these characters Natasha and Vladimir. I’ve got to use these common names.’”

A 1st and 2nd grade teacher from Durham shared that her students were aware she was coming to hear an author speak that evening, and she asked, “If you had one piece of advice to give to young writers, what would it be?” Pelletier offered to send the teacher some things she wrote when she was that age. “I started really writing when I was nine years old. Reading is very important, of course. We had very few books at home when I was growing up, except for a set of Childcraft books. We had no bookmobile or library in my early school years, so books were really special.”

Pelletier expressed her own awe and respect for teachers, and a certain bewilderment at how others are able to sustain the energy level it takes to teach. “I teach so passionately that I’m ill when it’s over. Then I can’t teach again for five years.”

One man asked Pelletier about her move back to Allagash. “Can you go home again?” he wondered. This is something the author has thought a lot about. “How do you get the past back? That’s what that line means,” said Pelletier. “Physically, you can return home. You can move back. I’m in the house I was born in. The house is mine now. I’ve made my writing room next to the room I was born in. I look out at the river that my great-greatgreat-grandparents navigated in pirogues as they came looking for white pine with grants from the King of England. The pine would build the masts of English ships. I can’t drive to Fort Kent without passing the graves of my maternal grandparents and several generations of paternal grandparents.” Her mother’s headstone is, so far, the only one in the family graveyard, which sits above Pelletier’s house.  “But emotionally, the past is gone. The feeling of the home is irrevocably lost without my mother there.”

Pelletier would like to fix the place up, plant some trees in the front so it’s private, and turn it into a creative retreat for herself and other artists. “How many of you have been to Allagash?” she asked the group. Seeing that few hands were raised, she said, “Well, we’ll have to change that.”

Learn more about Cathie Pelletier at cathiepelletier.com, and read about her papers on our website, at une.edu/mwwc/research/featuredwriters/Cathie-Pelletier.cfm.

 

 

George Borup’s correspondence with Marie Peary: friendship, love and tragedy

October 7th, 2013 by Cathleen Miller

Every now and then, I get the opportunity to dig in to an already processed collection in a way that allows me to understand the people and issues represented in a robust way.  A researcher calls up a collection or writes with a question, and I am often compelled to explore further than the original query demands. Every time I do this, I get a richer sense of the collection at hand, and I am much more prepared to help the next person who asks about connections in the materials.

Such was the case when an out-of-state researcher wrote to ask for copies of the correspondence from George Borup to Marie Peary. While I’ve spent a lot of time looking at Marie Peary’s diaries and souvenirs from her travels, I had not explored much of her correspondence.  I knew Borup’s name, but did not know much about him. At first, the letters were simply friendly cheerful notes that contained some teasing and references to her family.

 

In addition to letters, there are some postcards documenting Borup’s travel across the United States for the American Geographical Society.

Some of the letters were short missives that inquire about Marie’s day or relay information to coordinate visits, and others were accounts of his adventures out in the “wilds” of America.

           

While I stood at the photocopier, skimming letters as I went, I began to see a developing love story. Borup was deeply infatuated with Marie, yet I know that he was not the man she ended up marrying.

In all the folders of letters, this is the only correspondence from Marie to George.


In several letters, Borup referred to the expedition he was about to embark upon, telling her that if she falls in love with another guy during his time away, he will find some way to go on without her.

 

 

Borup’s letters became more and more intense, as in this one, where he tells Marie that he could not imagine life if she did not love him, that she brought life back to him lost when his mother died. He offers his heart-wrenching story with such earnestness that I worry Borup might die of a broken heart.

   

At this point, I decided to do some research about Borup, and what I found was a tragic ending.  http://www.jstor.org/stable/199892
http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F30E1FFC355A15738DDDAD0994DD405B818DF1D3
Borup’s star was burning bright and he was set to do what so few men of his time had the opportunity to do when he drowned while canoeing with his friend. While taking in Borup’s unfortunate death, I found myself a little relieved for him because his letters documented Marie’s cooling attention and his increasing bewilderment at her distance. I became curious about Marie’s position, whether her diary recorded her feelings about Borup or reflected upon his death.

I was pleased to see a diary from 1912, pages full of Marie’s neat script. I skimmed through and found a few references to spending time with George, but they pale in comparison to George’s cloying letters to Marie. As the winter was coming to an end, Marie wrote that George’s constant attention was annoying, and she mentioned many other men who caught her eye. She seems like a teenager (which she was at this point) with her many infatuations, none of them becoming serious. At one point she caught herself, reflecting that a girl who is “good as engaged” should not be looking around so much, but this observation does little to stop her roving eye.

In the weeks leading up to George’s death, she barely mentioned him in her diary. Her entry on April 29 began as any other entry did, with a description of her day, then she recounted learning of Borup’s death. Her dismay was clear.

 
On April 30, Marie ordered flowers and talked about her father going to the funeral, but she decided not to attend Borup’s funeral, writing that she wanted to remember him as he was in life. I looked through other dates of the diary to see if she reflected on the funeral, her decision to remain home, or anything else about Borup, but it appears that she says little. She seemed to move on quickly to shopping and traveling with her family.

With my curiosity satisfied, I resumed reading about Borup, glad to have learned more about this interesting man, who helped to flesh out my understanding of the Peary family’s story.