“Didn’t Do Much but a Little of Everything: The 1897 Eagle Island Diary of Dalton Raynes,” Ian Ludders, ed.; Lulu.com, Morrisville, N.C., 2020; 248 pages, softcover, $10.30.

Despite its title, “Didn’t Do Much but a Little of Everything: The 1897 Eagle Island Diary of Dalton Raynes” devotes far fewer pages to the text of fisherman Dalton Raynes’s diary than it does to detailing “the vast familial spiderweb of nineteenth century Penobscot Bay.”

This might sound dry. The book comprises the diary; ruminative, often lengthy footnotes; photos; a fisherman’s expense ledgers; reproductions of century-old news articles; and other miscellaneous materials such as the editor’s digressive comments on how Native American culture invisibly infuses our lives even now. It all grows like weeds from the terse, fragmentary, but undeniably poetic entries of the diary. It’s all fascinating.

The book was created by Ian Ludders, a sort of 21st century Renaissance man of no fixed address or occupation who specializes in pursuing whatever livelihood enables his interests in life, literature, history, culture and the world. He has family ties over much of northern New England, and has spent a good deal of time Down East. In addition to lobstering, picking blueberries and apples, and other seasonal work, Ludders is the unofficial literary executor of Cherryfield hermit Bruce Wallace, who before his death in 2012 enlisted Ludders’s help in producing dozens of pamphlets of his collected writings, philosophical, bawdy, poetic. Ludders brought out Wallace’s autobiographical “Dedham Days” <http://www.kjonline.com/reallife/happening/DANA_WILDE___In_Review_.html>  in 2014.

In recent summers Ludders worked as a sternman for lobsterman Bob Quinn, a generational resident of Eagle Island (located northeast of North Haven, west of Deer Isle). Quinn’s stories of island lore prompted Ludders to read Paul Molyneaux’s book “The Doryman’s Reflection,” an autobiographical look at the fishing life and its changes. Molyneaux fished with Bernard Raynes, the grandson of Dalton “Dal” Raynes, and Ludders noticed in Molyneaux’s book a mention of a diary kept by Dal at the age of 19. Curious, Ludders contacted Molyneaux, who sent him photocopies of the diary’s pages. Ludders decided to transcribe them. Finding the text full of cryptically fascinating names, he decided to connect its many stray dots, began researching and annotating, and decided to publish the results.

The diary entries at a glance seem sketchy. Many are just three or four short lines, the first always summarizing the day’s weather, like this:

 

Sun. May 23 * Wea. South wind

Went up home and broke the topmast in A.M.

Cut and built a knew one in P.M.

 

There’s not much here until you start thinking about how concisely these few words capture a prodigious day’s work. From there, every entry seems delightful, and they go on like this through November 1897. We encounter Dal’s brother Tine, his future wife, island families and neighbors, the sloop Rara Avis which he’s refitting, the Dirigo Business College which he is attending, rather casually, at the outset while spending the winter in Augusta. Finding all this fascinatingly evocative, Ludders set about to identify each person, place, business, boat and unfamiliar word.

On most pages, the footnotes occupy more space than do Dal’s scant lines. The “diary-archeology” comes to span most of Penobscot Bay, inland to Camden, Rockland and Augusta to Carmel and Etna. Ludders consults census schedules, city directories, birth records, marriage records, death records, ancient pages of the Rockland Courier-Gazette (reproducing in an appendix many articles of quirky interest), John Enk’s book “A Family Island in Penobscot Bay,” and Charles and Carol McLane’s “Islands of the Mid-Maine Coast,” as well as Quinn. He adds information as it comes in, and by the book’s fourth “printing” in less than six months (August 2020), he’s met and talked with Eleanor Raynes, the 87-year-old widow of Bernard, who has filled in more details and provided family photos.

The copious background details are elucidated in Ludders’s good-humored, readable, wide-ranging literary prose, which is by itself a pleasure to read. But the real treasures are Dal’s own words. You have to think he wasn’t intending poetry as he wrote in the diary, but Ludders, an experienced 21st century off-radar man of letters, fully recognizes and appreciates it for what it is.

 

Fri. June 18 * Wea. Snow fell in a squall today

Didn’t do much of enything

but a little of most everything

 

It is a great pleasure to run across books that have been written for no other purpose than the sheer interest in the material and the writing, and even greater when the work is inventive, quirky and intelligent. “Didn’t Do Much but a Little of Everything” should fascinate enybody interested in life in 19th century coastal Maine.

It’s available for at printing and shipping cost through lulu.com or by emailing Ludders at [email protected], or by mail at 168C Quaker City Road, Unity, NH 03603, or HC2 Box 11 Eagle Island, Sunset, ME 04683. At present Ludders is living in Vermont.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected].

 

 

 

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