Published by Hyperion Books
Review by W. R. Greer
The cover of The Lobster Chronicles shows a smiling and attractive Linda Greenlaw peering back over her shoulder at the reader. That smiling invitation draws you into her world, both professional and profoundly personal, that she shares in this book. Once a swordfish boat captain whose story was told in Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm and then in her own account in The Hungry Ocean, Linda Greenlaw now comes home to Isle Au Haut off the Maine coast to take up lobster fishing. As the subtitle states, this is a very small island, home to approximately 40 year-round residents. The book is the story of one year in her life on the island.
Trading the deep sea for the coastal waters around the island, Greenlaw is still a captain most comfortable on her boat. What becomes obvious in this book is that she's less comfortable on land. Greenlaw has moved back to her childhood home and in with her parents. As she admits later in the book, one of the reasons she moved home was to find a husband and build a family like she had growing up on the island.
Initially, the book reads like the drudgery involved in fishing for lobster. Greenlaw takes a lot of the romance that might be associated with lobstering and turns it into the backbreaking labor it really is. Her father is her sternman, the only help she has preparing the gear and working on the boat. They spend the spring scraping, cleaning, painting, and mending the buoys, ropes, and traps they use, and hauling them all out to the boat. Then they have to place all their traps on the ocean floor, mindful of all the other lobster traps already placed by the other fisherman. Then the traps must be continually raised from the sea, the lobster harvested, and set back on the seabed.
Life on the island sounds uninviting also. The island is accessible only by boat, has no amenities or medical facilities, and even lacks a high school. This isolation tends to create or attract people whose personality would be on the fringe of any society. There are no secrets on the island, lifetime grudges are often held, and town meetings are endless with repetitive debates concerning every topic on the island.
To make matters worse, the lobsters are not coming. For the first few months, the traps come up empty from the ocean floor and are sent back with fresh bait, just "changing the water" they call it. This helps nobody's mood. To add insult to injury, fishermen from the mainland are also laying traps in what has been traditional lobster fishing grounds for just the island's residents. A "gear war" is debated, where the locals will cut the ropes to the interloper's gear and try to defend their own from retaliation.
So what was the attraction of moving back home? Linda Greenlaw herself debates this question. She nears rock bottom when a crab clamps onto her thumb and she mercilessly beats it to death on the deck of her boat. Frustrated by the lack of lobster, she's also dealing with one of the realities of life on the island, that there are almost no available men for a romantic relationship. Greenlaw comments about the dearth of single men, "There are three single men in residence; two of them are gay and the third is my cousin." The steady depopulation of the island leads single men and women to leave the island to look for potential mates.
After 17 years of fishing swordfish at sea, Greenlaw has come home, and rediscovering this fact is what makes her year a poignant one. A lot of this book is Greenlaw's self-reflection on just the type of woman she is, tough as nails, captain of her boat, an overachiever, yet longing for the emotional comforts of love and home. Her father, stoic and hardworking, often shows his daughter the way to inner peace through his own actions. The other residents and fishermen, as odd as some of them might be, are also her home. The Yankee tradition of self-reliance and pulling together in times of need run deep through the community as well as the author.
This isn't a book with a gripping tale, with suspense that keeps the pages turning to see what happens next, but the pages turn quickly as each new event in the year is told. Like the author, the other residents are trying to find a way of life that will allow them to remain on the island they all love. As each chapter finishes, the oddball characters become a lovable addition to the island and her family pulls closer in times of crisis. While her descriptions of the toil and dangers involved make fishing seem to be an unattractive occupation, it's obvious that fishing is Linda Greenlaw's first love.
The Lobster Chronicles allows us to visit her lobster boat and the very small island. It's a loving but realistic peek into a mostly isolated world, where hard work and a strong backbone are necessary to survive. The themes of family, community, and the search for love are the same everywhere, though, and it that sense, Linda Greenlaw has opened a window for us all to look inside ourselves.
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