Wednesday, June 25, 2014

REVIEW: Old Tales of the Maine Woods

Old Tales of the Maine Woods and More Old Tales of the Maine Woods
by Steve Pinkham

review by Michelle Souliere

Old Tales of the Maine Woods is a terrific collection of genuine old Maine tales. Drawn painstakingly from 60+ years of writing as found in old outdoorsman magazines from 1851-1913, and carefully introduced section by section by author Steve Pinkham, this book is a real treasure trove. I was intrigued when a friend, knowing my love of old Maine stories, first pointed it out to me. I resisted getting too excited, because so many books simply capitalize on an easy re-hash of someone else’s work, and are flimsy excuses for anthologies.

When my copy of Old Tales arrived, however, I was pleasantly surprised. Here was a 300+ page book accompanied by its sequel, More Old Tales of the Maine Woods, which out-paged it at a total of 395 pages, and ranged back in time even further -- all the way to 1845. On delving into the books, it was clear my trepidation was unfounded. Steve Pinkham clearly possesses a zest for digging up Maine stories that may rival my own. To illustrate this, the introduction mentions a hefty 22,000 articles, each added by Pinkham to his files in preparation for culling out the dozens included in these two volumes. In addition, he has an eye for which stories are the really good ones. He has chosen a tasty bunch.

I couldn’t think of a better book to read:
1) In preparation for a trip to the Maine woods,
2) To keep at your camp for leisurely perusal by dappled sunlight or by a warm fire, or
3) To read when you simply can’t get away to the woods and must make do.

The stories in these volumes are arranged in sections by region, for example the Rangeley Lakes, or the Androscoggin and Magalloway Rivers sector. Each section paints a picture in many strokes, and from several points of view. A map will show you very little by comparison. Pinkham assists in this by lending his own voice to each section, introducing the region and its history to the reader with a written showcase of its main features and attractions, setting the stage for the stories to come.

The writing in the selections chosen by Pinkham is varied and often highly entertaining. Despite its old-timey sources, the prose (mostly non-fiction) is very readable, and the illustrations included (drawn from similar sources) accent the tales nicely. Pinkham also takes the time to introduce each author, giving readers some ideas on where to find more of their work. The stories range in length from a quick 3-page length to more substantial accounts, like the 21-page tale “A Winter Camp on Wadleigh Brook” by John Burnham.

A Maine history nut like myself will find themselves frequently making notes as they read, so have pen and notepad handy if this is your forte. To someone accustomed to sifting through mountains of pages to find gems of Maine wilderness writing, these collections are the utmost luxury. The first volume even includes a tale of a giant lake serpent, and hairy monsters galore!

The only drawback is inherent in the source of the materials, i.e., since the stories are primarily from sporting magazines, there is a preponderance of stories that focus on the outdoors as experienced when hunting. If you are strongly opposed to hunting, this may cause you discomfort. However, I am not a hunter and never plan to be one, and I enjoyed every story just the same, so I suspect most folks will enjoy the tales regardless. There are plenty of stories about tramping and camping-out included as well.

The glimpse afforded readers of the early years of Maine woods travel, the exciting encounters with unpredictable wild creatures, and the Maine vistas and vignettes recalled with great love and appreciation will make this book a treasure trove to revisit for years to come.

In the second volume, More Tales of the Maine Woods, there is the excellent addition of a couple of tales which include camp menus, which illustrate a very important element of camp life otherwise lost to the reader – food! Along with these come a bundle of stories of all seasons, including lost men, mishaps and near misses, the fellowship and characters found among woodsmen, and great and keen observations on Maine’s natural world.

Those readers who enjoy the Old Tales of the Maine Woods volumes will be delighted to find out that Pinkham previously released another Maine-themed collection of tales titled The Mountains of Maine: Intriguing Stories Behind Their Names. Any of these books can be purchased via Pinkham’s website or at your local bookseller. If the don’t have them in stock, make sure they remedy that when they place a special order for you!