As he boards the bus in Boston for Bangor, Maine, Staff Sgt. Bruce Gilpin is entering a life crisis. On the bus, it only gets worse.
He’s returning to his little central Maine hometown, Sovereign, after his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan, which is difficult enough. His parents have been taking care of his 16-year-old son in the absence of Bruce and the boy’s wayward mom, and he expects his own mother has plans to match him with his childhood sweetheart, whom he likes after all these years but does not want to marry.
Then on the bus, he sits down beside an extraordinarily pretty young woman whom, wham, he falls head over heels for, only to discover that, bam, she’s little Amber Johnson of Sovereign, just five years older than his own son.
They hit it off. She tells him the town has been preparing a welcome-home for him. Warming perilously to the conversation, he tells her he’s been daydreaming about refurbishing the long-abandoned corn-canning factory on the back side of town. She’s a college student with a literate fascination for Emily Dickinson. Before they get to Bangor, she’s fallen playfully into his arms, and we are well-grounded to the sweet, and largely innocent, conflict of Jennifer Wixson’s “Peas, Beans & Corn”: Should 35-year-old Bruce be fooling around with 21-year-old Amber?
The story is told, in a quirky twist of perspective, by a largely invisible first-person narrator, the town pastor, who is tight with all the town families, formal and informal ladies’ and men’s groups, and so has intimate knowledge of family histories and kitchen quarrels—almost all of which are more or less harmless, as backwoods family conflicts go. For this is sort of an anti-Beans of Egypt, Maine, tale—a love story about the mostly easygoing side of small-town life that turns on church gatherings, municipal business and mostly innocuous gossip.
Complicating Bruce and Amber’s problem of getting their chastely erotic relationship to its various kinds of consummations are Bruce’s mom’s good intentions, his son’s rather embarrassing mother, a handsome attorney and the whole question of what Bruce plans to do with himself now that he’s back from soldiering.
The latter is a window into some interesting history—made vivid by nice descriptions—of the old Maine corn shops. We learn that vegetable canning was a percolating industry in rural Maine from the 19th well into the 20th century, and that many a small town’s economic, social and political lives turned on its factory. For good measure, an appendix to the book provides a little black and white album of photos of the Burnham & Morrill Co. Corn Shop #5 in Minot, along with a mini-annotated bibliography of sources of Maine corn shop history.
“Peas, Beans & Corn” is a sweet, well-written little love story with cheerfully drawn characters, their wry, dry sense of Maine humor and their mostly harmless foibles. A nice current of the book is that the dialogue representation of pronunciation and diction is fairly true to the way people actually speak just inland of the Down East coast, a refreshing encounter, considering how far short such efforts often fall even among writers familiar with the local speech.
Many will find this a nice summer afternoon read at the lake, or snowbound afternoon read by the living room fire.
Jennifer Wixson, an “itinerant Quaker minister,” lives in Troy, where she raises cattle and writes. “Peas, Beans & Corn” is a sequel to “Hens & Chickens” (2012), with two more novels in the series planned. Her books are available through www.thesovereignseries.com.
Dana Wilde’s collection of rural Maine essays, “The Other End of the Driveway,” is available through www.dwildepress.net/thedriveway.