BOOK REVIEW | A Maine Hamlet

By Lura Beam

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Lura Beam  A Maine HamletFor too long, you could only find it in secondhand stores or in well-worn copies in public libraries – the book that a generation of readers treasured as the most perceptive account of traditional life in Maine ever written. Originally published in 1957, Lura Beam’s A Maine Hamlet is now back in print, thanks to the joint efforts of the Maine Humanities Council, the Maine Historical Society, and Tilbury House Press.

The Washington County hamlet of Marshfield still exists as a cluster of houses and a church, but the community itself has been absorbed into the life of nearby Machias. Yet early in the 20th century it was a self-contained and in many respects self absorbed place of 227 people where the rituals of birth, schooling, marriage, and death were enacted amid the routines of farming and fishing. The sociologist Lura Beam grew up there with her grandparents in the 1890s, returned from time to time to visit, and in the 1950s wrote this loving but clear-eyed portrait of a world she knew was already vanishing. She describes its people, its institutions, its calendar of activities, and its beliefs.

It is a world of one-room schools and spelling bees, of camp meetings in summer and winter breakfasts of “oatmeal with cream, eggs, hot blueberry muffins, applesauce, and coffee.” It is a world which invites nostalgia, but she is too tough-minded an observer to indulge in more than an occasional elegiac note on “the slow and limpid flow of time.”

Beam recognizes that there was a price to be paid for this kind of traditional community – a lack of curiosity about the rest of the world, for example – and she invites her modern reader to reflect on how we can recover what was best about it: its sense of caring for each other