Downtown Bath after the blizzard of 1952. Photo courtesy of Paul Werner

As a novelist for more than three decades, the truth came easy to Cathie Pelletier.

“Fiction is all true, because we made it all up, so everything in the book is correct,” said Pelletier, from her home in Allagash, at the northern edge of Maine. “We literary people are snobs. We’d say ‘He wrote a history book, how nice for him, but what we did is invent a whole world.’ Now I have whole different outlook. I’m obsessed with research and finding the truth.”

Pelletier’s new-found passion for research and narrative fiction is evident in her new book, “Northeaster: A Story of Courage and Survival in the Blizzard of 1952.” The book follows several ordinary Mainers who struggled through a monster storm, including a pregnant woman in Bath, a teenaged boy in Brownville and a lobster dealer from Cushing. Pelletier peppered the families of the people she wrote about with questions about everything from what they ate and wore to how they might think and act in specific situations. She also did extensive research on the storm, the areas involved, the history of weather forecasting and more.

“She asked me all kinds of things about my mother’s background, about her mother, about what we ate and what we did. I even gave her a recipe for the blueberry cake my mother made,” said Mary Wirta, 83, of Gales Ferry, Connecticut. Her mother, Hazel Tardiff of Bath, was the expectant mother Pelletier wrote about in the book. “For two years she emailed me and sent me excerpts to read, she even asked for my opinion on the cover.”

Cathie Pelletier’s new book is a narrative nonfiction account of a 1952 blizzard and its impact on several Mainers.

Pelletier, 70, said her years as a novelist creating characters  prompted her to be so thorough with her questions. Because the people in the book are deceased, there’s no good way to tell for sure exactly what they were thinking during the storm or right after. So she asked questions, a thousand or more, to help inform her writing.

Pelletier calls the book creative nonfiction because she took what she learned about each person and their situations, and tried to use that knowledge to weave a compelling story.


“I can research all the facts, how many feet of snow, how many plows were out. But nobody can know their exact thoughts or dialogue,” Pelletier said.

The book, published by Pegasus, went on sale in January. Pelletier is doing several talks about it in southern Maine, beginning Thursday at Mechanics’ Hall in Portland. She also has events scheduled for Friday at Patten Free Library in Bath, and Saturday at Southport Memorial Library in Southport.

In a blurb for Pelletier’s book, author Stewart O’Nan called said it was not only “a fast-paced disaster narrative about the workings of fate, but a paean to a long-lost way of life.”


Pelletier’s first novel, in 1986, was “The Funeral Makers,” a funny, quirky story about a prominent family in the small, remote, fictional Maine town of Mattagash. The Allagash native continued to write novels until a few years ago, including several others set in Mattagash. In the fall of 2019 two very different kinds of books by Pelletier came out.

She shared writing credits with theoretical physicist Sylvester James Gates, Jr. for “Proving Einstein Right: The Daring Expeditions that Changed How We Look at the Universe,” a book she says “changed me completely” as a writer. The other was a memoir that she co-wrote with her longtime Cajun fiddler friend, Doug Kershaw, “The Ragin’ Cajun: Memoir of a Louisiana Man.”


She said the Einstein book ignited her passion for research, as she found that many mistaken ideas and facts were repeated over the years in the writings of some physicists and astronomers, and she became fixated on finding out what was right.

Photo courtesy of Pegasus Books

But the inspiration for “Northeaster” came to her before those two nonfiction books, nearly 20 years ago, when she lived for a while in Canada. She also lived in Nashville for many years before moving home to care for her ailing father in Allagash, about 15 years ago.

She said she was searching online for information on snow storms and came upon a photo of Hazel Tardiff, pregnant, being taken to the hospital in Bath during that February 1952 storm on a toboggan. The image made her curious and nostalgic, as it was taken the year before she was born. And because she grew up in far northern Maine, the image of neighbors helping each other deal with three feet of snow was something she could relate to.

She decided at some point to learn more about the storm and started doing a ton of research, not only on the storm and people impacted by it, but on the radios, record players and cars of the era.

“That photo was an homage to a place and time, when men took lunch pails to work and people came home to gather around the radio,” Pelletier said. “The people dealing with that storm had no cell phones or even working telephones in some cases, and the weather forecasting was not nearly what it is today. Right now we are better equipped than ever to deal with that kind of weather, but we are plastic compared to the people of that generation.”

Through her research, Pelletier found the storm had a dramatic impact on a wide variety of people all over the state. In New England overall, it was estimated the storm caused 40 deaths. She found that more than 1,000 cars were stuck on the Maine Turnpike, which had opened just five years earlier, between Kittery and South Portland. Ships off the coast cracked in half. About three feet of snow covered much of the state, but drifts as high as 15 feet and continually blowing snow caused chaos.


Pelletier decided to focus on just about a dozen Maine people and stories, and their lives, in her book. She alternates sections on each person, starting with sections on their background or family history, then on their struggles during the storm. She asked so many questions of the children of people she wrote about and got so much help that she refers to “Northeaster” as “our book.”

Centre Street in Bath, covered in snow. Herbert L. Douglas photo


One person she focused on in the book is the woman whose picture she saw, Hazel Tardiff. Tardiff, 34, was at home in North Bath, about to give birth to her fourth child. Dr. Virginia Hamilton walked on snowshoes to the Tardiff home to check on Hazel, and decided she needed to go the hospital. Neighbors and friends bundled her onto a toboggan and pulled her for about 2 miles, until they could reach a snowplow. The plow took her the rest of the way to the hospital in Bath.

“I remember watching them take her away. It was pretty scary,” said Wirth, who was 13 at the time.

Pelletier alternates people’s stories throughout the book, detailing their family background and their struggles during the storm. As in a good novel, suspense is built toward the specific outcome of each story, some tragic, some triumphant. So this story will try to avoid spoilers and not give endings away.

Another focus of her research was lobster dealer and lobster fisherman Harland Davis of Cushing, 30, who left in his boat during the storm with another man to buy 5,000 pounds of lobsters on the island of Monhegan, about 12 miles off the Maine coast. She corresponded with Davis’ son, Bill Wilson of Woolwich, while writing and researching. Wilson, 70, said he ended up learning things he had never known about his father from Pelletier. He learned for instance that his father had not been previously married to his high school sweetheart, something Wilson grew up believing.


“Cathie did so much research on my father. She really knew his heart and soul,” Wilson said. “I learned more from her than I ever did from my father’s side of the family.”

Downtown Bath after the blizzard of 1952. Photo courtesy of Paul Werner

Pelletier said she felt like all her training and instincts developed from years as a novelist helped her bring depth and emotion to the real people she was writing about and their stories.

“I think you’ve got to be a novelist for years to do what I’m doing now,” said Pelletier. “I used all my skills on this.”

Pelletier said she may get back to fiction at some point. She says she has about 60 pages of notes for a new Mattagash novel but isn’t sure when she might work more on it.

She says she’s nearly finished writing a screenplay for a movie of “The Funeral Makers,” which would be directed by Doug Liman and produced by Gabrielle Tana. Liman’s credits as a director include “Swingers” (1994), “The Bourne Identity” (2002) and “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” (2005). Tana’s work as a producer includes “The Dig” (2021) starring Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan and “Stan & Ollie” (2018) about movie comedy team Laurel and Hardy. Pelletier has been talking to the pair about a movie of “The Funeral Makers”‘ and says they have decided that “the time is finally right.”

As for other recent projects, Pelletier has two books coming from Maine publisher Down East this year. Her middle grade novel “The Mystery Traveler at Lake Fortune” is due out in July while her young adult prose version of Maine poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Evangeline” is slated for an October release. In her version, Evangeline stays young and returns to Acadia.

She says her next book might be about a cold case. It’s about the murder of 17-year-old Stephanie Casberg of Milwaukee, who was killed in 1969 and was last seen working her job at a Big Boy restaurant. Her body was dismembered and found in pieces several miles from her home.

Pelletier’s interest in the case stems at least partly from the fact that she and Casberg both finished high school in 1969 and both came of age in the ’60s. Beyond that, she’s fascinated with piecing together facts and trying to figure out how people think.

“I think I would have loved to be an FBI profiler,” Pelletier said.

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