There was a time not long ago when Maine literature-or, more accurately, literature about Maine-was largely written by and for people from away. Transplants or seasonal visitors like E.B. White, Louise Dickinson Rich and Henry David Thoreau wrote of our state, land and people with the adoration that comes with falling in love with someplace unlike where you were from, but usually without critical insights that come from having had to survive exclusively on what this glacially scoured land provides. “Year-Round Summer People and the Maine Mythologists,” Sanford Phippen memorably put it thirty years ago, “continue to hype the Maine that never was.”

No longer, thankfully. This spring alone has seen the publication of two novels that present life on our coast not as it should be, but as the struggle it often is. Hull Creek (Downeast Books, $24.95), by Freeport native and Warren resident Jim Nichols, tells the story of a Midcoast lobsterman facing expropriation by the newcomers who’ve taken over his Rockport-esque town. Crash Berry’s Sex, Lies, and Blueberries (Maine Misadventures, $14) follows an outsider-an economic refugee from Portland-as he’s sucked into the desperate, dangerous vortexes of Washington County, the poorest part of Maine.

Nichols’ protagonist, Troy Hull, is the last surviving member of the clan that gave Hull Creek its name. He’s also the last local person with substantial waterfront property, and the old Hull homestead-with a dock from which he still sets out to fish-is surrounded by the imposingly tasteful homes of wealthy newcomers and sought after by a nefarious cabal that includes Troy’s banker. His wife has left him for one of the “swanks.” His traps keep coming up empty. The streets of his hometown are filled with people who give him “the look” that says it’s he, the fisherman, who doesn’t belong in the quaint “fishing” hamlet.

Backed into a corner, Hull increasingly sees but one way out: joining a high school classmate in some criminal merchandising. The gateway product: smuggling coils of the new, right whale-friendly lobster trap warp in from Nova Scotia. (Who knew there was money in that?) But as the ring of speculators close in, Hull reluctantly agrees to take part in more dangerous schemes.

Nichols writes plainly, powerfully, and with the firsthand knowledge of the sociological effects of coastal gentrification that comes with being a native of Freeport. His Midcoast is populated with characters that ring true-clammers, barkeepers, violent brutes, piratical schemers and Eddy Cranberry, a
giant man reminiscent of Steinbeck’s Lennie Small, only smellier. Hull Creek is a delightful read and, for those new to the coast, highly informative.

Over the past three decades, Midcoast communities from Freeport to Belfast and beyond have seen enormous sociological and demographic change as fishing and farming outports have become desirable zip codes for retirees or people wanting a second home or second start away from the pressures of the East Coast megalopolis. Meanwhile, the far Downeast coast-still too remote and short of infrastructure to attract a flood of “Year-Round Summer People”-has seen its economy continue to falter. The per capita income in Washington County is now half that of Cumberland County, from which the protagonist of Sex, Lies, and Blueberries-failed rocker Ben Franklin-has fled with his poet wife, hoping to find land they can afford to live off. They quickly discover that as hard as it can be to scrape together a living in greater Portland, it’s nothing compared to doing so on our coast’s beautiful, tragic eastern fringe.

To make ends meet, Ben resorts to blueberry raking, an activity Berry conveys in all its backbreaking, joint-ruining intensity. He also quickly discovers that it’s no accident that many people in the region are addicted to prescription pain killers or the income that comes from dealing them. Broke and fearful of not making the rent, Ben soon gets sucked into a Downeast underworld populated by an assortment of compelling, original and often disturbed characters. Mayhem ensues, some of which will have readers on the edge of their chairs, fumbling for a seat belt.

Berry-who until recently lived with his wife in Eastport and, indeed, resorted to raking blueberries to survive-has clearly been able to draw on personal experience to set his fictional world alight. Readers will learn a great deal about blueberry raking, rural drug culture and the economic traps of life in what is sometimes called “the other Maine.” As the title promises, there’s plenty of sex as well, though if you-like me-are acquainted with the real-life Berry, you may find it awkward that he bears such a close resemblance to his novel’s protagonist.

Together, these novels make for an enjoyable and possibly educational double header: the first elegantly understated, the second building to gonzoid intensity. I, for one, look forward to both authors’ next works.

Colin Woodard is the author of three books, including The Lobster Coast. His fourth, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Cultural Regions of North America, will be released Oct. 3 by Viking Press. More info at