HERMIT: THE MYSTERIOUS LIFE OF JIM WHYTE

HERMIT: THE MYSTERIOUS LIFE OF JIM WHYTE, by Jeffrey H. Ryan; Maine Authors Publishing, 2019; 153 pages, $17.95

Most folks recall the splashy headlines about the North Pond Hermit a few years ago, but few Mainers have ever heard of Jim Whyte, “the crazy hermit” who lived in a remote woodland cabin near Onawa, Maine from 1895 to 1933.

Portland author Jeffrey Ryan first heard of Whyte while researching his 2017 book, “Blazing Ahead,” about the creation of the Appalachian Trail. Fascinated by what he learned about Whyte, Ryan has written “Hermit,” a fictionalized story based on fact, revealing a colorful Maine character whose life is layer upon layer of surprising mystery.

Ryan is an excellent storyteller, and this tale is as good as any novel, especially since it’s based on real people and real events. Told mostly by

Ben Harmon, first as a young boy, then later as a newspaper reporter, Jim Whyte’s life is an intriguing adventure. Whyte (1860s?-1933) arrived in Onawa in 1895, bought land, built a cabin and lived a life of solitude.  He showed up speaking six languages, had bags of money and no explanations of his past or wealth.

Whyte’s few friends tell Ben of curious behavior, late night freight trains, coded signals, dropped packages, the deadly Onawa train wreck of 1919, trips to New York City, worrisome visits by FBI agents asking too many questions, and rumors of $40,000 in cash buried somewhere on Whyte’s property.

It’s only after Whyte’s death in 1933 that Ben finally uncovers several of Whyte’s secrets — secrets carefully hidden by Whyte’s two friends — and Ben is stunned by the revelations. He finally understands how Whyte made his money, but one question remains to this day: Where is all that money? It has never been found.

This is a terrific story about the decisions people make to protect themselves and others. And Jim Whyte wasn’t crazy at all.

 

GARDEN CEMETERIES OF NEW ENGLAND

GARDEN CEMETERIES OF NEW ENGLAND, by Trudy  Irene Scee; Down East Books, 2019; 259 pages, $29.95

Cemeteries are not usually places most folks would choose to visit. In fact, one pundit accurately said: “The fence around a cemetery is foolish, for those inside can’t come out and those outside don’t want to get in.”

Still, cemeteries are rich with local social history, symbolism, natural beauty, art and architecture as smartly presented in Maine author Trudy Scee’s new book, “Garden Cemeteries of New England.” Despite the title, this book is not about gardens or gardening; rather, the term “garden cemetery” was created in the 1840s and 1850s to describe formal, organized municipal and private cemeteries in New England.

This is a short history of garden cemeteries in that era, featuring 12 garden cemeteries in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York. Scee is an accomplished historian and photographer who has written about pirates, true crime and the history of Bangor.

She is clearly fascinated with these old cemeteries and the stories they tell. She describes how garden cemeteries began to replace the old haphazard, unhygienic burial grounds, providing organized, financed, supervised and maintained cemeteries designed as a pastoral “resting place for the dead, and also a haven of beauty for the living.”

She tells of each cemetery’s early history, the challenges of landscaping, planning and funding of plots, planting of native trees and shrubs, use of stone and water features, as well as sculptures, statuary, tombstones and mausoleums.  She also tells how they were open to all races, religions and classes, including special sections for soldiers, orphans, strangers and the poor.

Learn what a “zinkie” is, how “perpetual care” was created, which cemetery was featured in a 1987 Jack Nicholson movie, and which cemetery has the greatest concentration of dead politicians. Supplemented with beautiful color photographs.

Bill Bushnell lives and writes in Harpswell.

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