“Sideshots: Stories from a Land Surveyor’s Traverse through the District of Maine” by John T. Mann, illustrated by Earle Mitchell; Maine Ulster-Scots Project, Edgecomb, Maine, 2020; 264 pages, paperback, $26.35

For years now the number of people writing up and publishing their own life stories has been expanding. If traditional scholarship survives in anything like its recent form, historians will have a lot of material to sift through. Some of that material will distinctly illuminate its times and places.

John T. Mann’s “Sideshots: Stories from a Land Surveyor’s Traverse through the District of Maine” is one of those books. It provides an insightful look, not at history exactly, but at what actual people whose lives would not otherwise be considered were thinking and doing through it all.

Mann, who is a natural-born storyteller, describes not just incidents in his long career as a surveyor in central Maine, but sketches an inside picture of the struggles of an entire lifeway by way of instructing us on what surveyors do and how and why they do it. He tells us about the land in Freeport entrusted to him by tradition, and how that tradition operated for generations until it began to crack and break up in the 1970s under the economic, social and political stresses of an influx of people from away, as we say. “‘New folks want town gum’ment to do everything for ’em,’” one of Mann’s old-time Freeport neighbors complains circa 1979.

Amid that turbulence, Mann made his way inland with his young family to a homestead in Bowdoin, where in the following decades he pursued life as his Maine forebears had for centuries, farming, bartering, raising livestock, picking up surveying jobs, and making himself useful in the backwoods community and economy that is largely unseen at commercial and social surfaces.

“Sideshots” (titled after a surveying phrase indicating “points along the way that may be of interest … or even critical to understanding the property being surveyed”) is a very rough-hewn book. But at its core is a perceptive, wry, even captivating storytelling voice from Maine’s outback. It provides not just the lay of the land, but the lay of the people who live there. Here, better than anything I’ve read in the last bewildering five years or so, is an implicit yet illuminating picture of what the long trail to Trump looks like in rural Maine.

Future historians trying to piece together a picture of “the real Maine” in the 20th century might use “Sideshots” alongside books like “Hard Chance: Tree Farming in Troubled Times” by Peter Pfeiffer, of Harmony; “The Oatmeal Stories” by Robert Stevens, of Hancock County; “Fireside Chats” by Waldo County journalist and teacher Jeff Shula; and the poetry of Bucksport Poet Laureate Patricia Ranzoni. Almost any Maine reader can learn something about where they are right now from this appropriately homemade book.

“Sideshots” is available from the Maine Ulster-Scots Project based in Edgecomb.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Fridays of each month.

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