In the healthcare world in which I work, a “sentinel event” is defined as: “any unanticipated event in a healthcare setting resulting in death or serious physical or psychological injury to a patient or patients, not related to the natural course of the patient’s illness.” In the day to day mundane world in which we all live, there is typically one (possibly two) sentinel-like events that physically, if not psychologically change our life course. It could be a rash decision, an ill-considered marriage, a traumatic divorce, a death of a child and so on. These can leave us psychologically damaged and may cause us to either act even more rashly or the converse, trying to get our lives back together.This Time Might Be Different: Stories of Maine by Elaine Ford (2017, Islandport Press) is a book of fifteen such stories of marginalized people dealing with the caprices of life in small Maine towns, usually situated on the coast. The stories typically involve a single male-female relationship, whether it is a new romance, a well-established one or one that has recently ended (or a combination of all three!). The late Elaine Ford (she passed in August 2017) was not only a proficient writer of novels but a teacher of creative writing and literature at the University of Maine for two decades. Her writing has been described as “spare and elegant; detailed and nuanced.” Her settings in rural, coastal Maine are just as germane to the story as her workaday characters.
The initial story, “The Depths of Winter” sets the tone for the collection:
“Every winter seems longer,” Emma went on. “This time of year is the worst.”
She sliced a piece of bread and spread apple butter on it. “No wonder people take to bashing each other.”
Emma’s daughter Kori works at a local factory making metal rings for Christmas wreaths. One day she spies Pete Duggan who tries to hit on her. Kori ignores his advances and is told to stay away from the Duggans (“Duggans are nothing but trouble”). Bored with life but curious about the man, she agrees to get a ride home from him, but he takes her to his trailer home (not a few of Ms. Ford’s characters live in trailers):
The trailer was an old one, streaked with rust. It had two metal doors, blank as closed eyes. A cinderblock stoop led to one door, nothing led to the other. You’d need to jump a foot and a half or more off the ground to get through it. Empty bottles and cans, tires, a rotting overstuffed chair, other assorted junk partly under snow littered the clearing.
After drinking a beer and eating some poppyseed cake with Pete and discovering that he is – among other things- a scuba diver for sea urchins, Ms. Ford describes the following scene:
He put down his beer can and gazed at her so long she felt her face go hot. The dog under the couch moved restlessly, his collar rattling on the floor. She licked butter from her lips. Finally, he reached across the table and touched her copper-colored hair. “Pretty,” he said. Then, “Time to take you home. Your old lady must be wondering what happened to you.”
On a Sunday morning, Kori gets up before breakfast and sets out on foot to get to Pete’s trailer:
“Can I come in?” she asked.
“Sure you want to do that?”
“I didn’t walk all this way to stand out here.”
“Things might be different this time.”
“I know that.”
The phrase “this time might be different” is an apt title for this collection of Maine stories, for it could be applied to any one of the fifteen. For example, the outcome would be different (sometimes for the better; often for the worse):
- If Kori hadn’t accepted a ride from Pete in the first place;
- If Leonie hadn’t dropped the (suicide?) note and if it hadn’t been picked up by John Scarano, the down-and-out writer in “Suicide”
- If Marty hadn’t given Teresa a ride home in “Demons”
- If Steve hadn’t invited Nicola to the beach rental where he was staying with his wife and kids in “Dragon Palaces”
That’s to list just a few instances of choices made (or not made) in the fifteen stories. At times, “this time might be different” applies to second chances, such as in “From Away” when Stan (“The Fix-it Man”) comes to the assistance of Clara, whose husband has passed away and now she’s been driving her car, looking for a place in Maine to settle down:
“I suppose you’re wondering what in heaven’s name I’m doing here. A woman of my age all on her own, with no known ties to this place.”
“I’m curious, I’m bound to admit.”
After telling Stan (reluctantly at first) about her husband’s struggle with cancer and her desiring to live somewhere on the East Coast, near the sea, and how she set out not knowing where she would end up:
And then, right in front of the sign welcoming me to town, I got the flat tire.”
“That’s where Stan the Fix-It Man came in.”
She smiles. “An angel in disguise. By the time you jacked the car up and put on the spare, it was past four in the afternoon. You promised you could have the tire repaired by morning, so I checked into the motel.”
Clara takes off her sunhat, lets the salty breeze ruffle her hair. Pixie cut, the young woman in the Clip ’n’ Curl called it.
“Well, Stan, I walked around town and felt at home, in the oddest way. Comfortable. The beautiful old Congregational Church could have been the one where I went to Sunday School as a child. I ate supper in the restaurant by the motel, a fried haddock sandwich.
I never eat anything fried anymore, but I did it anyway, and it was absolutely delicious. I even ordered a glass of wine. When I was leaving I stopped to look at the table where they display all those tourist brochures. On the table was a stack of photocopied flyers advertising a little furnished house for rent. I’m not sure why— maybe it was the wine—but I took one and folded it and put it in my purse. The next day I called the number on the flyer, and went and saw the house, and fell in love with its quirky coziness and the view across the salt marsh to the bay, and . . . ”
“Here you are.”
“Here I am.”
“Every life is full of drama within,” Ms. Ford told The Maine Sunday Telegram in 1987. “The trick is to persuade the reader that the story is worth telling. That’s my reason for writing novels.” Her short stories, as evidenced in This Time Might Be Different all excel at finding the drama – that sentinel-like event- within each person’s life. That’s not the difficult part. The difficult part is, as she profoundly states, persuading the reader that it is worth telling about. I think that you will be readily convinced that all the stories in This Time Might Be Different are credible, engaging and will stand as an enduring testament to the brilliant literary skills of Ms. Ford.
I’ll be putting This Time Might be Different on my 2018 “The Very Best!” Book Awards longlist for Fiction, Short-stories.
Of Ford’s rural-Maine-set novel Monkey Bay, The New York Times said: “Elaine Ford’s book is reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth’s stark paintings, which use the terrain of northern New England to explore a much larger emotional landscape.”
This Time Might Be Different: Stories of Maine by Elaine Ford
With a forward from Maine’s poet laureate Wesley McNair and an afterword by her second husband Arthur Boatin.
Available in paperback or Kindle Editions from Amazon or in a Kobo edition. 320 pages, Fiction / Short stories