When the “collapse” of her 150-year-old cottage in Grand Manan could no longer be ignored, Alison Hawthorne Deming was faced with a practical question: demolish or rehabilitate. The question for her soon became more philosophical: “undo” or renew. She began to reflect on the stories of the people who had lived there before her parents bought the house in 1957. her her decision: “I knew the house was not going to fall under my control.”
From these Hamlet-like debates on the fate of a home, “A Woven World” evolves into a quest for balance that honors the past while seeking contemporary renewal. Deming doesn’t need to look past Grand Manan and his herring fishing tools that could become a thing of the past.
Instead, and pleasantly (I think of Deming, first of all, as an environmental writer), she begins her contemplative journey to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She went to see Yves Saint Laurent’s “sardine dress”, inspired by a role particularly sexy in a Rita Hayworth film. After admiring the technical art on display in her silk, its myriad of sequins and meticulous stitching, she imbues the sardine dress with all the poetry of her own writing of nature. “Long ripples rise and fall, rise and fall, like a disturbance in a calm bay, the work of the moon at play in a field of light.” It could be the description of a quiet night at her beloved Grand Manan.
Again, instead of heading straight back to her island, she uses the dress to make an easy transition to a reminiscence of her maternal grandmother, Marie. She was a talented seamstress in New York City, carrying on the work and name of her mother of hers, who had been one of the seamstresses of Empress Eugenie in Paris. And then, speaking of embroidery, let’s go back to Grand Manan, where an old fisherman sits mending his nets. “Creators,” Deming reflects. “Whose skill is perfectly suited to the demands of the job, learned by observing and doing, patience and time.” And what will the fisherman use to catch his nets? The herring, which once canned, will become sardines.
It’s a fairly dizzying circle, more like a vortex. The centripetal force that tries to hold all this disparate material together is the story of five generations of women: from the author’s great-grandmother to her own daughter. The search for the stories of the first two leads to personal memories, even if not consecutively.
Deming gives his best in a perfect essay with the provocative title “Driving the Cadillac to Valhalla”. Valhalla, outside New York City, is where Marie, her grandmother, is buried in an anonymous grave. The chapter is a beautiful mix of momentary observation, elegiac memory and history, all culminating in a withheld shock: “forty years after (Marie) died in her bed in our family home,” Deming became the first. person to visit his grandmother’s grave.
For the time being, the author asks the question of why or how it should be and pursues his grandmother’s early life. A faded and faded photograph taken in 1885 “fits a story that resists being told.” It can only follow the “fragments”. These are stitched together with the social history of the times. An entire chapter consists of nothing more than paragraphs excerpted by other writers (Simone de Beauvoir being the most famous) on women and fashion styles in Napoleon III’s France.
Deming’s most reliable clues are the addresses on old letterheads of her great-grandmother’s tailoring business as she was being pushed into Manhattan by the ever-expanding city. Walking along the West Side, he finds address after address deleted by later developments. Eventually, she sees a man with a “SUBWAY Wow 10% OFF” billboard and below, the last address she’s looking for. Still standing, the great-grandmother’s house is now a subway restaurant. It was “a Fellini film in which I suddenly found myself”.
In addition to this personal archeology, the author explores the barrages around Grand Manan and the stories of the fishermen. The biology of herring and the history of fishing take it all the way to Iceland. The Herring Era Museum is one of several museums specializing in a variety of arcane subjects; the list includes a Phallological Museum. Deming loves lists. In addition to museums, there are different types of points (14), “lost goods and crafts” collected on microfilm (over 30) and many others.
There is a lot of fascinating in “A Woven World”; many of the stages of the author’s research are beautifully framed. The occasional repetition from chapter to chapter suggests that the book began as a collection of essays. Perhaps this explains why, despite elegant writing and the gravitational pull of generational stories, its center ultimately doesn’t quite hold up.
Thomas Urquhart is the former executive director of Maine Audubon and the author of the recently published “Up for Grabs, Timber Pirates, Lumber Barons and the Battles Over Maine’s Public Lands”.