Rhea Cote Robbins believes everyone has a story and should tell it.
As a writer of regional creative nonfiction, she says that if we are to know ourselves, our history and our culture, we must document it.
“I believe there has to be more literature,” she said. “I think other people should write and tell their stories. They need to know that they have to value their story.”
As a child of French heritage growing up on Water Street in the South End of Waterville in the 1960s, she was told at every turn that she was not valued — because of her ancestry and the fact that she lived in a working class Franco-American neighborhood.
The area was called The Plains and was settled by Canadian immigrants who worked in the mills. Her father, an abusive alcoholic, worked 38 years at the Hollingsworth & Whitney/Scott Paper mill in Winslow. Her mother worked at the C.F. Hathaway Co. shirt factory at the north end of Water Street.
Cote Robbins, now 60, documented her story in the book, “‘down the Plains,’” which describes her coming of age in a house her parents built at the south end of Water Street, between Pine Grove Cemetery and the Kennebec River.
The book is about a girl’s struggle to find herself in an era when speaking French was discouraged and where English-speaking people made fun of her “Frenchness,” — her accent, the way she used her hands to explain things, how she spoke animatedly and loved to debate and argue.
It is a story about growing up with a father who was artistic, yet barely literate — a father who she now believes suffered from clinical depression and self-medicated with alcohol. He was a hard worker who drank only on weekends, but when he did, he beat her mother, terrorized the family and wreaked havoc in the household. Her mother, a protective parent, was an avid reader and a wonderful seamstress who made all of her daughter’s clothes.
The story follows Cote Robbins as a young girl, suffering the taunting of some schoolchildren during the one year her family lived in the Somerset County town of Detroit.
She was teased because of her accent and told she was a dumb Frenchman, which prompted her to stay inside the school building during recesses, reading all the Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden books she could find, imagining herself in those fictional worlds where friends were loyal and supported one another.
The blessing of attending Catholic schools was that the teachers were nuns who took academia seriously and were terrific storytellers and writing instructors. They taught the children to write profusely and often, according to Cote Robbins.
Writing, she said, was a daily ritual — and one she has continued to the present.
“I think that someone really has to put in the time and the craft to work at their writing. It’s a process. You have to practice. I told my husband, David, it’s like practicing (musical) scales. I just started writing in my 159th journal.”
After graduating from Waterville High School in 1971, Cote married and had three children. She studied art at University of Maine at Presque Isle in 1980-82, then attended University of Maine, in Orono, on a bilingual education scholarship and earned a bachelor’s degree. She taught high school English briefly and from 1986 to 1996 was editor of LeForum, an international bilingual, socio-cultural journal at UM. She received a master’s degree in art in 1997.
She founded the Franco-American Women’s Institute, an online resource that documents Franco-American women’s contributions to Maine. She also taught in UM’s Women’s, Franco-American and Maine Studies programs. In 2004, she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Maine at Farmington. Now she is an academic adviser in the Explorations Program at UM, helping students undecided about their majors to identify their areas of interest.
Cote Robbins won the Maine Chapbook Award for her previous book, “Wednesday’s Child.” She speaks at colleges and other venues about Franco-American issues and is working on a third book, “If These Walls Could Talk,” which is about her mother. She has edited several books and publications, including “Canuck and Other Stories,” a collection of writing by early Franco-American women writers.
A breast cancer survivor, Cote Robbins has done extensive research on her family of origin in both Canada and France. Visiting France for the first time was like coming home, she said.
She believes in speaking truthfully and writing honestly.
Some people might find “‘down the Plains’” difficult to read, as it portrays the harsh realities of alcoholism, abuse and discrimination — and does not sugar-coat.
Cote Robbins said that is the only way to tell the story.
While the self-published book is available online, at amazon.com and stores including Bull Moose Music, she acknowledged that some places will not carry it because it does not present a pristine Maine image. And, she said, Franco-American literature is not in the mainstream.
“There are still barriers that need to be brought down,” she said. “It’s seen as a subculture literature.”
Cote Robbins, now living in Brewer, visits Waterville often. Her parents and grandparents are buried in St. Francis Catholic Cemetery, next to Pine Grove Cemetery, which is just up the hill from their family home in the South End.
We drove to the house this week and parked in the driveway.
She recalled her childhood there, which, despite the dysfunction, produced many happy memories.
“There were gardens all around,” she said. “We had vegetables. My father kept pigs and goats and rabbits.”
She pointed to maple trees that dot the hillside leading to the cemeteries, which served as her childhood playground.
“We used to tap those trees every spring and we’d make maple syrup,” she said. “It was just like living in the country, but we were in the city limits.”
Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 26 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]