Most of all, Ruth Moore, who died in 1989, was a wonderful storyteller, which is how her niece Muriel Davisson remembers her. Muriel grew up in a house near Ruth and her partner, Eleanor Mayo, overlooking Bass Harbor on Mount Desert Island. As a child, Muriel, who now lives in Ruth’s house, remembers how she and her four siblings were always dropping in on Ruth, Eleanor and their two big coon cats. “Ruth could be feisty, but she was great with us kids,” Muriel said. “We loved listening to her stories”. On Christmas Eve, Muriel’s family would go over to Ruth’s house and listen to A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Then Ruth would come over to their house on Christmas morning bringing each child “a very special present.”
Ruth was known to her nieces and nephews as “Uppy,” a name that stemmed from when her oldest nephew was a baby and would follow her around the house saying, “up, up, up,” when he wanted her to lift him up. Subsequently Murial told me Ruth signed her books to family members, “From Up.” Muriel told me she rereads her aunt’s books every ten years and sees new things in them each time.
Ruth Moore was born in 1903 into a fisherman’s family on Gotts Island. After high school she went to Albany State Teacher’s College where she majored in English and economics. Returning to Maine she enrolled in the Master’s program at the University of Maine, but left after a semester. In 1932 she moved to Greenwich Village where she worked as a personal secretary for Dr. John Homes, a liberal Unitarian minister, playwright and orator.
In 1940 Ruth met Eleanor Mayo, an aspiring writer also from Maine, and the two soon became a couple. They returned to New York where Ruth got a job with The Readers Digest while writing her first novel, The Weir, which was published in 1943.
In the book, the weir provides both hope and despair in the lives of the fishermen, In the book, which I enjoyed enormously, Moore introduced many of the themes that would be repeated throughout her novels: the world of coastal Maine, island life versus life from away, knowledge of the sea versus formal education, the conflicts between generations and the limitations of a woman’s life.
At one point in The Weir, the heroine Alice muses, “She knew well enough what it would mean if she got married and stayed here at the Harbor. The tired and discouraged women and girls she saw every day were evidence enough. They kept house for their men-folk and children at night and worked in the sardine factory in the day time”.
This is not the place to discuss the novels, poems and ballads that Ruth Moore wrote during the remaining 46 years of her life. I would like, however, to comment on two of her books that I found particularly interesting. With the publication of her second novel Spoonhandle in 1946, Ruth achieved a degree of financial independence, which allowed her to build a house in Tremont, overlooking Bass Harbor and Gott’s Island, where she grew up. Spoonhandle spent 14 weeks on the bestseller list, and sold over a million copies. Hollywood director Henry King made it into a movie. Deep Waters was filmed on Vinalhaven and nominated for two Academy Awards. Ruth was very unhappy with the script, however, which differed significantly from her book and she ultimately walked off the set. The result, according to her niece Muriel Davisson, was that she was effectively blackballed by the film industry for the rest of her life.
Ruth wrote The Walk Down Main Street in 1960 and the book illustrated her versatility as a writer (sportswriting) in addition to her familiarity with small town Maine life. The story revolves around a championship high school basketball team and its star player, who has professional aspirations.
I won’t reveal the plot except to say that I found it an interesting coincidence that the theme was remarkably similar to John Updike’s Rabbit Run, also published in 1960 and also about the fortunes of a small town basketball star. Muriel Davisson told me Ruth was vilified because of the way she depicted high school athletics in the book. When I asked Muriel how her aunt knew so much about high school sports, she told me Ruth was on the local school board for years.
Gary Lawless, co-owner of the Gulf of Maine Bookstore in Brunswick and publisher of The Blackberry Press, began to republish Moore’s works beginning with Spoonhandle in 1986. “Her novels represent what life in Maine was like in the 1940s and 50s”, says Gary, who is dedicated to keeping her books in print. “She doesn’t romanticize people’s lives, she writes about how they lived and how they talked.”
More recently, high school English teachers in Maine have begun to use her books, with the result that she is becoming more widely read around the state. Moore’s life was recently celebrated in her hometown of Tremont where the author was honored in the second-annual Ruth Moore Days. “It will be all things Ruth,” said performer Jackson Gillman, a personal friend, who recited several of her classic ballads.
When she died in 1989, Ruth Moore’s reputation was primarily that of a “good regional writer,” a label Muriel Davisson and others feel is inaccurate since, as Muriel says, ” Her stories are about people and could happen anywhere.” Also during her lifetime Moore was hailed as, “New England’s answer to Faulkner.” Regional writer or not, that’s a pretty good epitaph.