Making a Life

Shaping an Identity

A Let's Talk About It series

  • Tales of Gluskap the Trickster
  • Song of Rita Joe; Autobiography of a Mi’Kmaq Poet by Rita Joe and Lynn Henry
  • Turnip Pie by Rebecca Cummings
  • Papa Martel by Gerard Robichaud
  • The Clear Blue Lobster-Water Country (Book Three) by Leo Connellan
  • The Girl Who Would Be Russian by Willis Johnson
  • Maine Speaks: An Anthology of Maine Literature

(Libraries select 5 titles)

In the popular imagination, New England is peopled by crusty Yankees and rich vacationers.  A closer look at history reveals diversity from many backgrounds.  However, the value of those roots may come into conflict with the ideal of Amer­ica as a “melting pot” in which differences are erased. The literature in this series reflects the experiences of Mainers who have shaped an identity amid pressures to preserve cultural traditions and to achieve assimilation.

A common language, country of origin, and history, a body of shared traditions, beliefs and stories—these form the basic definition of ethnicity.  However, given the assimilation to mainstream American culture by most subcultures, cultural affiliation in the 1980s tends to be a chosen identity.

The survival of any culture depends in great part on the stories its members tell. Because their culture was transmitted orally rather than in writing, native Americans were regarded by early settlers as “children of nature,” without literature.  In fact, Maine’s original peoples, the Penobscots and other Indian tribes, told and retold the tales of Gluskap the trickster for hundreds of years before they were written down by folklore scholars in the nineteenth century.  The versions included here were gathered by an anthropologist, Frank Speck, from Indian storytellers and informants eighty years ago.

The other works in the series were written by descendents of immigrants and by a sympathetic outsider in an effort to explore the history and continuing impact of Maine’s ethnic communities.  When the Finns, Russians, and French-Canadians immigrated to English-speaking America, their native languages became powerful means of defining their ethnic identity and preserving aspects of a valued heritage.  Only recently has writing in English for a larger audience become a legitimate way to foster ethnicity.

Even fiction based on authentic ethnic experiences can never be simply a reflection of reality; it constructs and comments on that reality from the author’s point of view.  Anthropologists had a role in selecting which oral narratives to print, often rejecting tales that might offend a non-Indian reader.  Rebecca Cummings tells her stories about first-generation Finnish immigrants primarily from a female viewpoint.  They reveal that the life of Kaisa Kilponen in America is much more restricted and considerably less carefree than that of her husband Matti.  Gérard Robichaud’s stories focus on the male head of the Martel household, portraying his uneducated wisdom in idealized terms.  Yet the stories contain an implicit critique of French-Canadians who did not provide the language education necessary for their children to adapt to American life.  In contrast to Robichaud’s rosy portrayal of the Franco family, Connellan chooses a bitter and angry voice to tell of the Irish-American experience.  Boppledock, an institutionalized and unemployed alcoholic trying to reconcile himself to a loveless childhood, finds little of value in the history of Irish immigration to America.  Finally, Willis Johnson’s stories about the Russian community are told by a sympathetic outsider, who sees the ironic necessity of illusions to sustain meaningful life in exile.

The stories in this series are all set in Maine, and most have been told by people who grew up with ties to an ethnic community.  However the experiences they fictionalize might have taken place in similar communities elsewhere in America.  Maine’s ethnic history is, after all, part of larger patterns in American history.  Our stories are American stories.

Turnip Pie, by Rebecca Cummings

Finnish settlers came to America as early as 1638, building their log cabins along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania.  By 1672 a Lutheran church with Finnish membership could be found in lower Manhattan, then New Amsterdam.  However, the majority of Finns arrived in the United States in the half century between the Civil War and World War I (1866-1914), among them the immigrants fictionalized in Rebecca Cummings’ stories.  Kaisa and Matti Kilponen and their friends portray the first generation of Finns to arrive in the western hills of Maine’s Oxford County.  While some found work in granite and feldspar quarries and others went into lumbering, most in the area called “Edom” were peasants from eastern Finland who wanted land to farm.

The stories in Turnip Pie evoke the world of Finnish farmers in Maine from 1907 to 1919.  Women’s work centered on the household, which sparkled with cleanliness in accordance with the value given this virtue.  Kaisa makes all the traditional Finnish foods: turnip and rice pies, rye bread and the sweet breads, cookies, and buns that accompany coffee.  Matti is a hard worker who likes his liquor.  Both are industrious people of few words, with an undemonstrative relationship in private as well as in public.  Social life centers on the coffee table, the sauna, and the Lutheran church.

Kaisa and Matti have problems common to many first-generation immigrants.  Kaisa, whose world is restricted to her home, learns English very slowly and misses her family.  She cherishes ties to Finland while Matti is more ready to assimilate to the new country.  He’s also quicker to succumb to the temptations of Mr. Murdock, the salesman of fine watches, who hones in on immigrants with ready cash.

Although Cummings portrays her Finnish forebears as frugal, honest, meticulous, and undemonstrative, humor is not lacking in the stories.  From the folk motif of the trickster tricked when he eats stolen pie to the vanity of a balding Matti or the naiveté of a teetotalling Kaisa, the details of stories can provoke hearty laughter.  Strong Finnish identity and Finnish community also generate curiosity, suspicion, and humor in relations with non-Finns.

Turnip Pie is the first book by Rebecca Cummings, a granddaughter of T. August Komulainen, who settled in South Paris at the turn of the century.  She grew up with family barns still full of relics of that first generation of farmers.  The idea for the title story came to her when she was collecting and testing her mother’s Finnish recipes.  As she kneaded the dough for turnip pie, she began to wonder what would happen if an outsider who didn’t know better ate too much of it.  Most of her stories are fictions which draw on the authentic details of Finnish immigrant life, but a few like the situation in “Another Miracle” are tales from her own family.

Rebecca Cummings, Turnip Pie and Other Stories.  1986, *Puckerbrush Press.

Papa Martel, by Gérard Robichaud

The story of the Martel “inheritance” retells French history in America.  Like the Martels, most Franco-Americans can trace their ancestors to seventeenth-century immigrants from France to Quebec and Acadia.  During the late nineteenth century, over half a million French-Canadians moved into New England when the farms of Quebec and the Maritimes became less productive.  Louis Martel tells his father-in-law that there are “two kinds of canayens, those who worked on their farms, stayed put in their counties and were buried there, having never seen the world, and the others, the adventurers, the coureurs de bois, who must forever see what lay on the other side of the mountain.”  He identifies not with farmers but with the woodsmen-adventurers of early French Canada; he moves to Maine with new bride Cécile, in search of work as a logger, carpenter, and construction worker.  Other Franco-Americans found work in the mill towns of New England like Manchester, New Hampshire, Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Lewiston, Maine.  Lewiston, Robichaud’s fictional “Groveton,” had a population 60-80% Franco-American during the 1920s and 1930s when the novel takes place.

Bonds of kin, language, and ethnicity were strong in the Petits Canadas which developed in these small cities.  Papa Martel gives an idealized picture of a family which is able to preserve its ethnic heritage while managing cultural assimilation as well.  Many first-generation Franco-Americans never became citizens, retaining land and family connections in Canada in hopes of return.  Louis Martel still dreams nostalgically of “Sweet Acadee,” the land of his youth.  His first and second wives, however, are determined that their children will have the advantage of assimilation.  Cécile fights for the solid education and linguistic skills they will need to prosper in America, while Monique wants a promise that little Louis will go to college to become a lawyer or a doctor.  The harmony between the two cultures in this novel is symbolized by Madame Martel’s reading both the Groveton Daily Herald and the francophone Le Messager, and by the co-existence of her evening reading of world history with Papa Martel’s oral narratives.

However necessary for survival, work never provided the most important goals in Franco-American culture.  Unlike the Finns or Germans, who valued the results of hard work as measures of achievement, traditional Franco values centered on family life and religion.  Louis Martel makes an adequate living but does not prosper financially.  “It’s better to be poor together than to be rich alone,” he tells one rebellious daughter during the depression.  He sums up his philosophy of life as he sits meditating on the eve of his last daughter’s marriage:  “Work hard, play hard, love hard, pray to the God you know is in heaven, laugh once a day to stimulate your arteries, marry and multiply … That’s the real tempo, the true rhythm…”

Papa Martel portrays life within the dominant rhythms of marrying and multiplying.  One by one the Martel children grow up, find mates, and bear children.  In accordance with his philosophy, after the death of his first wife Louis Martel marries again and becomes a father for the eighth time.  The expressive, communal sociability of traditional Franco-American life is shown in the veillée, the periodic family gathering, a scene of boisterous joking, carousing, dancing, and singing.

The rhythms of Franco-American family life are mediated by the rituals of the Catholic Church.  The Martel children attend parochial school, the priest is a family friend, and that goal of every Catholic family to give one child to the Church is achieved when Émile attends seminary and plans to take vows.  The pervasiveness of religious beliefs and rituals in daily life means that Papa Martel can joke about them and, occasionally, manipulate them to his advantage when they threaten to interfere with his enjoyment of life.

Gérard Robichaud’s portrait of the Franco-American paterfamilias was inspired by his own father, whose joie de vivre he celebrates in the foreword to Papa Martel.  The author is now completing a sequel entitled A Pearl of Great Price.

Gérard Robichaud, Papa Martel.  l961, Doubleday.

The Girl Who Would Be Russian, by Willis Johnson

The Russian community of Richmond, Maine, which appears in Willis Johnson’s stories as “Plankton,” was until recently the largest rural population of Russians in the United States.  Its members, aging exiles from the Russian Revolution, moved to Maine in the 1950s and 1960s.  They were attracted by the promise of living among compatriots in a countryside of pine forests and rivers that looked like their homeland.

Unlike the Finnish immigrant farmers or Franco-Americans who often came from the same village or family, the Russian expatriots were a diverse group who had scattered after the Bolsheviks or “red” Russians gained power in 1919.  Some were aristocrats, many were well-educated and cosmopolitan.  The “father of the colony” in these stories is Maxim Maximovich, whose racks of magazines and books in many languages allow him to know everything important that is going on in the world.  He has established a boarding hotel for the town’s elderly Russians in a Maine sea captain’s house.  As the socially superior people in town, Maxim Maximovich and his baronness wife sit on the top floor widow’s walk on summer evenings, their dependent fellow Russians on the verandah below.  Their preeminence is threatened only by the mysterious and reclusive Anna Rus who might be an aristocrat of even higher status—a member of the doomed royal family in the imagination of their daughter Sonya.

The Russian orthodox religion is central to life in Plankton and reflects its class structures: there is an upper-class church, a lower-class church, and a church for Ukranians.  The ubiquity of death in the aging community is eased by church rituals, by belief in resurrection, and by an awareness of God and his saints as providential actors in everyone’s life.

Russian culture is represented not only by the Andreyev Russian Classical and Folk Music Orchestra, which plays every Saturday night in the Hotel Nicholas the Second, but also by Marietta Valentinova, “the famous ballerina who lived over the hardware store” and who had seen Pavlova dance.  While such  traditional art forms impress non-Russians; the expatriates watch American TV programs like Lawrence Welk, Love Boat, and Little House on the Prairie.

In contrast to Finnish reserve, the Russians are openly emotional—their anger, their sentimentality, and their confessions of adultery all publicly expressed.  Despite its social and cultural divisions, the community is united in its antagonism to the Soviets in Russia and its fear of Soviet informers.  Sharing histories of wartime suffering, the Russians cling to their dreams no matter how unrealistic.  Johnson’s stories are suffused with an irony arising from the difference between the pretensions, hopes, and perceptions of the characters and the reality they experience.  Tragedy seems a logical response, but most of the stories have a tone closer to that of the ballet performance: “On stage the swan was dying with grace and great passion and beauty and in the audience someone. . .laughed!”

As an outsider to the Russian community, author Willis Johnson’s fascination is refracted through several fictional characters in the collection.  They include Mr. Farley, the custodian of the Methodist hall in which the Winter Gala Ballet takes place annually, and Christian, the young and bearded teacher who plays the balalaika like a Russian.  Finally, there is Debbie Brown.  At thirty-one she decides that she will learn to speak Russian and to play the “bellylicker,” for she takes the weekly funerals seriously and thinks that someday she might be the last Russian left.

An AP newsman who became interested in the colony of Russians at Richmond, Johnson realized that as the already aged Russians died the community would vanish, and he determined to capture its distinctive qualities in journalism.  His newspaper article on a Russian Orthodox priest who makes a hospital visit was eventually transmuted into fiction as “Prayer for the Dying.”  After it was published in a literary magazine and won an award, he rewrote other articles as stories.           •

Willis Johnson, The Girl Who Would Be Russian and Other Stories.  l986, *Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Maine Speaks: An Anthology of Maine Literature

published by The Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, 1989.

 This anthology offers a sampling of Maine literature. More than 100 writers with Maine ties are included in the book. Spanning the centuries with offering in poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction, the selections include work by Sarah Orne Jewett, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Elizabeth Ogilvie, E. B. White, John McPhee, Philip Booth as well as Passamaquoddy legend. The facilitator will select a variety of short readings from this collection.

 The Song of Rita Joe- An Autobiography of a Mi’Kmaq Poet  

by Rita Joe and Lynn Henry

 Rita Joe was born on Cape Breton in 1932. After the death of her mother when she was five and of her father when she was ten, Rita Joe lived in a series of foster homes. In an emotional crisis at age twelve (“My life a mess, moving onward blind”[Song 43]) she enrolled herself in the Shubenacadie Residential School. Forty years later, Rita Joe wrote about her experience in Shubenacadie.

I lost my talk
The talk you took away.
When I was a little girl
At Shubenacadie school.
You snatched it away:
I speak like you
I think like you
I create like you
The scrambled ballad, about my world.
Two ways I talk
Both ways I say,
Your way is more powerful.
So gently I offer my hand and ask,
Let me find my talk
So I can teach you about me. (Song 55)

Readers of the Autobiography will find a complicated text. With her first paycheck from her first paid job in a Halifax infirmary, Rita Joe bought herself a pair of red shoes, and this spirit of passionate self-expression bubbles beneath her repeated assertions of calm acceptance. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how she could have survived as a battered wife and single mother of ten, without this feisty spiritual core. Her story reveals courage and skill in communicating with, and then reconciling with, those who hurt or thwart her.

“One day,” she writes (Song 97), “it just dawned on me that something had to be done. ‘We have to tell our lot,’ I said. ‘We have to be the ones to record our words.'” Propelled by this passionate resolve, Rita Joe’s narration becomes not only a vehicle for self-analysis, but also a resource for women under duress, and a vigorous and inspiring voice for us all.

While Rita Joe did not live in Maine, the Mi’Kmaq people are in both in Maine and the neighboring Maritimes.


The Clear Blue Lobster-Water Country, by Leo Connellan

Selection: Book Three

The Clear Blue Lobster-Water Country is a trilogy, a three-part poem narrated by a down-and-out American of Irish descent named Boppledock.  The first book explores the torment of a child who grows up trying to placate an angry and unloving father without the mother who had died in childbirth when Bop was seven.  In the second book, the now middle-aged Boppledock is a recovering alcoholic in the Little Hope Hospital.  He says he is writing a trilogy of “flesh and bleeding, not always pretty,” trying to understand the truth about his own existence, although confusion and deception make his job difficult.  Never denying the power of the family to condition and haunt him, Bop nevertheless claims he will accept responsibility for his own future: “The cure’s in us.”

Bop’s personal family history is enmeshed in American immigrant history: “Again the sea spews barely believing humans for America’s one more chance.”  The poem as a whole remorselessly dissects the American myth that here anyone can become successful.  Bop recounts the dark side of Irish family life and culture as well as the corrosive prejudice that greeted outsiders of all ethnic groups in Yankee New England.  In its willingness to address such dark truths, this work acts as a corrective to the gentler, somewhat idealized portraits of ethnic experience found in other works of this series.

The third book of the trilogy centers on the immigrant experience of the narrator’s grandfather, Michael O’Dock, who left County Clare, Ireland, with his mother in 1868 to escape the terrible potato famine, “potatoes grinning black in their cores and the Irish walking dead in their own land.”  While the Irish had immigrated to Maine before 1840, mostly on timber ships coming to the Maritimes, it was after 1847 that economic collapse in Ireland sent waves of poverty-stricken Irish to New England.  In just fifty years, from 1846 to 1900, the population of Ireland was reduced from 8 to 4 million by emigration.  Bop’s grandfather works as a porter at the Portland railway station, just as the majority of labor for eastern railway construction was Irish in the mid-nineteenth century.

The Irish immigrants to Maine encountered an almost completely alien Protestant Yankee culture which despised them for their Catholicism, for their poverty, for their violation of liquor laws, and even for their meekness.  Portland was a “city of sardine stink and Burnham & Morrill baked beans”; it was “Silent, quiet, Protestant New England.”  The hostility that greets other ethnic groups springs from “ignorance, cruelty, bullying, forcing anyone you found frightening to do vile things in lobster frustration.”  For example, a black man working at the sardine factory is tormented by his ignorant fellow-workers.  Bop tells of his own experience with Jim Economou, a second-generation Greek, an ex-shoeshine boy, who becomes District Attorney but still feels discrimination (“This was Protestant clear-blue-n-don no one wanna forgit it.”)  The repetition of “clear blue” throughout this section undercuts the pastoral myth that the beauty of the land and sea in Maine belongs equally to everyone.  Lobsters, too, become emblematic of the cold, hard, impoverished existence of all workers on the Maine coast, who often felt their jobs were threatened by the immigrants.

Despite the hostility of native New Englanders, Bop sees Irish Catholic culture itself as the greatest problem for an Irish immigrant.  Church authority and religious rituals—supportive of ethnic society in other works—here burden Catholic souls and blight Irish lives.  Bop is baptized “when I was barely born, Confirmed into a religion I did not choose.”  The terror of eternal damnation afflicts all Irish, especially his own father, Big Billy.  The Church is party to the sleazy hustle of Catholic magazine subscriptions while people are starving.  “Jesus wouldn’t make potatoes grow f’all y’genuflectin’ to Him.”

Encouraged by Church doctrine, the grandfather has thirteen children.  The first twelve are girls who live out their lives unmarried in their father’s  house, “enbalmed alive in the Irish religion, frightened.”  In a culture where only male children count, the daughters die without identity, buried with no names on their gravestones.  With symbolic appropriateness, the family home faces St. Dominic’s church, the original Catholic sanctuary in Portland.

After the last daughter’s death at 91, the grandfather’s granite house, symbol too of “Irish success in America,” must be sold because “We were all poor from beating our breasts in Mea Culpa instead of going out into American opportunity,” the narrator notes with bitterness.  Irish culture seemingly prevents this family from competing, from getting out to fight for “a piece of Protestantland.”  The family, a source of warmth and security in the Franco-American novel, is shown to betray its own in Connellan’s poem.  Women die nameless, and Bop’s grandfather who had worked so long to educate and bring his brothers over from Ireland only succeeded in generating a feud between the two branches of the family.  “State Street O’Docks” and “Munjoy Hill O’Docks” were not to talk to each other in Bop’s boyhood.  Bop concludes that the Irish are afflicted with a “savage self-destructiveness.”

In Book Three, Irish family history and American immigrant history dissolve into contemporary history.  Boppledock becomes involved in the war in Central America when an idealistic college teacher tells him he should show the people that all Americans are not the common man’s enemy.  Lying wounded on a stretcher, Bop tries to make sense out of his personal losses as he faces death.  His aspirations are characteristically American: “this little country that became vast, where common man got told for the first time in rememberable history they had a right to the pursuit of happiness.”  But, he realized, “Greed always takes purity’s place.”  At the very end he’s looking forward: “if you could ever git to th’point where you can do somethin’ with no profit in it f’you.”

The poet, Leo Connellan, was born in Portland and grew up in Maine as the son of a postmaster.  Like Boppledock’s, Connellan’s grandfather emigrated from Ireland to Portland in 1868 to escape the potato famine.  Connellan has said that he wants to use his poetry “to convey the futility of poor working people who get up and go to work knowing each day before they start that they cannot ever earn enough.”  The grittiness of that working-class vision informs this poem, as does Connellan’s desire to write poetry that addresses American themes.  He speaks of his aim to “become a good lyric narrative poet in the tradition of Robert Penn Warren’s Democracy and Poetry, Delmore Schwartz’s In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, Karl Shapiro’s V-Letter and Other Poems, Richard Wilbur’s Walking to Sleep, François Villon’s The Legacy-the Testament, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost.”  There are echoes too of the Whitman tradition in which the common working American is hero.

Leo Connellan, The Clear Blue Lobster-Water Country.  l985, *Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Tales of Gluskap The Trickster

Before the arrival of Europeans in the sixteenth century, Maine was inhabited by tribes of a major ethnic group of northeastern Algonquian Indians known as the Wabanaki or “dawnland people.”  Among the related tribes were the St. Francis Abenaki, the Maliseet, the Passamaquoddy, the Micmac, and the Penobscot.  They spoke mutually intelligible dialects and shared many traditions.

The Wabanaki originally depended for their subsistence on migratory hunting, fishing, and gathering along Maine’s rivers and lakes, but families might also grow corn, squash, and beans in clearings near their village.   With European settlement, tribal culture was disrupted in three ways.  The Europeans brought diseases to which the Indians were not immune, and within a hundred years of first contact the Wabanaki population had been reduced by 90%.  European settlers displaced Indians from their homelands, and French missionaries converted many tribes to Catholicism.  Nevertheless, traditional myths continued to be retold as part of the oral culture of the tribe.

One of the most widely distributed myths tells of the culture hero/trickster, a being who shaped the world, who gave humans the arts and skills to survive, and who is often portrayed as a contradictory character.  Among the northeastern Algonquian peoples, the name of the trickster is Gluskap.  Myths about Gluskap were considered sacred stories, to be told only at ritually appropriate times of the year.  During the summer when snakes were out of the ground, storytellers feared snakebite.  They therefore told the stories in the winter months, beginning in late fall (“Leaf Falling Moon” or “Ice Forms on Shores”) and ending with the onset of spring (“Egglaying Moon” or “Spear Fish Moon”).  Despite ritual restrictions on storytelling, most trickster narratives were humorous and elicited laughter from the audience.

The most common stories associated with tricksters explain “the way things are” in the natural world.  Gluskap is responsible for the skunk’s markings and for the small size of the squirrel.  He also showed man how to make the first hook and line for fishing, and how to make snowshoes, game bags, and canoes—all items originally made for him by Woodchuck, his doting grandmother.

Each of the Algonquian tribes places Gluskap’s adventures in its own territory.  The Maliseet believe he sailed up the St. John River, while the St. Francis Abenaki place his origin in the St. Lawrence River valley.  The Penobscot say he came up the Penobscot River and was last seen sailing southward from its mouth.  In Penobscot myth, Gluskap’s traces are still to be seen in the landscape.  His canoe, left on dry land near the river at Castine, turned to a stone which is still there.  Mount Kineo was his cooking pot, overturned on the shore of Moosehead Lake.  The Penobscot River originated when Gluskap killed the monster Frog who had drunk all the water in the world.

Like other trickster figures in Indian and world mythology, Gluskap is known as “Liar” or “Deceiver,” meaning that he lives by his wits.  He overreacts occasionally and can be hurt by his own tricks.  Many stories recount the bawdy tricks of Gluskap, and some folklorists who collected Wabanaki tales prudishly refused to print such stories.  They wanted to see him solely as a culture hero; as a result, some of the published Gluskap myths have been sanitized.  They reflect European discomfort with paradoxical figures who do not fit a dualistic system of good and evil.  Tricksters, by their very nature, violate boundaries, transcend categories, and dramatize possibilities.

Although stories about Gluskap probably predate European contact, they came to incorporate recent history.  Gluskap is said to have discovered France before the French discovered the New World.  The myth also tells us that after sailing away from the Penobscot River, Gluskap remains in his wigwam with his grandmother Woodchuck, making arrows.  When the tent is filled with warheads, he will emerge to drive the white man from Penobscot lands.

Versions by Frank G. Speck in “Penobscot Tales and Religious Beliefs,” Journal of American Folklore, 48:187, l935.


An asterisk (*) indicates a paperback edition.  Dates given are the original publication date.

“Making a Life, Shaping an Identity: Ethnic Americans in Maine” was developed by Kathleen M. Ashley, Associate Professor of English, University of Southern Maine.

The development of this material was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Copyright © l987  Maine Library Association


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