“Finding Home: A Memoir”

By Ellen Waldron Richards

Pothole Press, Bangor, 2015

316 pages, trade paperback, $19.95

“The Oatmeal Stories”

By Robert R. Stevens

CreateSpace, Charleston, S.C., 2014

172 pages, trade paperback, no price given

Historians in some mythic academic future are going to have a mind-boggling trove of information to sort through about the lives of 20th century Americans. In the past 30 or 40 years, there’s been a vast explosion of autobiography.

It’s been fostered by a complicated network of socioeconomic factors, a few of which are: two generations of well-educated people who took seriously Socrates’ observation that the unexamined life is not worth living; a widespread secret ambition to be remembered as a writer or artist; a desire spanning the social classes to record for posterity the events in their own lives that they wish their parents had told them about themselves; and not least, possession of the means and leisure to undertake the project. Also, a lively audience for the stories has grown with the writing.

My own literary interests have never gravitated toward this kind of writing, but I can name several memorable examples from Maine anyway: “Excuse for Being Here” by Robert Chute, of Poland; “Peripheral Visions” by Farnham Blair, of Blue Hill; “Hard Chance” by Peter Pfeiffer, of Harmony; “Work Aversion Trauma” (hilarious) by Tom Lyford, of Dover-Foxcroft; and “Dedham Days,” by Bruce Wallace, who lived his final years in Cherryfield. They’re just a handful among many.

Recently, two more landed on my desk: “Finding Home” by poet Ellen Richards, of Bangor, and “The Oatmeal Stories” by Robert Stevens.

“Finding Home” is a conventional autobiographical narrative focused mainly on Richards’ childhood in Ohio and the wayward row she hoed through her late teens and 20s. Her life seems a characteristic example of the turbulences many young middle class Americans faced trying to grow up in the 1940s and ’50s after the most devastating psychological disaster since the sack of Troy — World War II.

Richards’ narrative is intensely personal, recounting in painstaking detail the smallest but most luminous memories from her deep past, then drilling into her adolescent confusion, triggered in part by childhood sexual abuse. Writing articulate prose, Richards recalls the frictions and pleasures of her many significant personal relationships, from parents, to high school friends (and enemies), through college at the University of Chicago and then Harvard, to her partners, and finally to her recognition relatively late in life of her homosexuality.

The story is honestly told, with certain fascinating episodes (including an otherwise innocent boyfriend who while on a business trip inadvertently shot and killed a woman, and faced murder charges). But its central appeal is its close reading of the emotional dislocation common to her generation in the 1950s: social anxieties, feelings of estrangement and restlessness despite reasonably comfortable economic circumstances, and a pervasive sense of insecurity. There’s a great deal to be gleaned about mid-20th century life in this book.

“The Oatmeal Stories” is in a category all its own. It’s a collection of letters Robert Stevens sent to his daughter, Catherine Serrao, after she asked him to write down as much as he could remember about his life. She found the responses so compelling she decided to publish them. Future historians of rural Maine will find this book a data lode.

Stevens spent most of his 1940s childhood in Surry, living in what we’d now call abject poverty. He perceptively observes that today, his family’s conditions would be unacceptable to social service agencies. No running water. An outhouse (“almost always full enough to touch your bottom when you sat down”). As the oldest sibling, he had to kill the chickens for food. They frequently had no transportation. The upstairs room where he and his brothers slept was stifling in summer and frozen in winter; they went in and out of it through a hole in the ceiling above the kitchen stove. “I was taught to steal,” he says matter-of-factly. And in one chapter: “I hated the whippings I would get.”

Technology: “My mother had a sewing machine that she would use on the door step. It was a treadle machine, which meant working it with your feet. It made a vibration that you would not think much about, but apparently the night crawlers thought it was a rain storm and they would come out of the ground. Huge, long things would come over the door step and into the area of the sewing machine. Not just a few; a lot of them. It was a weird thing to happen and I never forgot it.”

The oatmeal of the book’s title refers to shortages of food. Often the family ate only what they could scrounge — stolen, wormy beans, bad tripe. Sometimes the mail carrier, wife of the local store owner, would quietly leave parcels of oatmeal and flour so they wouldn’t starve, and they’d eat the oatmeal three times a day for weeks.

It’s all given in a down-to-earth voice that is well aware of how strange it sounds to people who’ve never brushed up against real poverty, and also aware of how strange his own accepting disposition must seem. It’s just the way it was.

The whole book is laser-accurate in the smallest details to scenes I encountered up the road from my own childhood home in southern Maine in the 1960s. It’s the reality Carolyn Chute depicts in her 1985 novel, “The Beans of Egypt, Maine.” “The Oatmeal Stories” may turn out to be an indispensable historical document of what poverty looked and felt like in midcentury Maine. It’s a gold mine of detail that future historians can follow — if my wife’s harrowing stories from her rural high school are any indication – into the present day.

Both books are available from online booksellers.

Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections every other week in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel’s What’s Happening? Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].