“Abbott’s Reach” by Ardeana Hamlin, 2011, Islandport Press, $16.95, 279 pages.
A honeymoon voyage in the mid-1800s sometimes lasted for months or years aboard a sailing vessel — if a woman happened to fall in love with a sea captain. Sea legs attained, she would stay beside her husband as they traveled the world. She birthed children abroad as they traded coffee and sugar in foreign harbors, and the entire family stayed on the ship.
“Abbott’s Reach,” Ardeana Hamlin’s long-awaited sequel to “Pink Chimneys, A Novel of Nineteenth Century Maine,” explores the lives of these seafaring women, who often came from Searsport, which was home to one-tenth of the nation’s deep-water sea captains in the 19th century.
“It’s a piece of Maine history and women’s history that we don’t know a lot about,” Hamlin said.
“Abbott’s Reach” updates the lives of the characters in “Pink Chimneys,” including Maude, a midwife; Fanny, a former Bangor brothel owner; and Fanny’s daughter Elizabeth, a seamstress and captain’s wife. In the sequel, Hamlin moves on to the next generation, to Elizabeth’s daughter, the rebellious Mercy Maude, more commonly known as M.
“It never occurred to me to write a sequel, but in the back of my mind, I thought, ‘Gee, I wonder what happened to the baby,’” said Hamlin.
Instead of exploring the streets of Bangor, M, a woman born at sea “with salt in her veins,” casts off to visit foreign lands and weather a variety of storms aboard the sailing vessel Boreas, which soon would be considered old-fashioned in the shadow of steamboats.
Maine seafaring women first intrigued Hamlin when she came across the book “Searsport Sea Captains” (compiled by Frederick Frasier Black) during her research for “Pink Chimneys,” which was published in 1987 and was reprinted four times by popular demand.
When Hamlin began collecting historical information and sketching ideas for “Abbott’s Reach” in 1994, she modeled many of the characters after photos found in “Searsport Sea Captains,” which contains life statistics of all of the captains and captains’ wives who sailed out of Stockton Springs and Searsport.
Hamlin, now a resident of Hampden, wrote “Pink Chimneys” while raising five teenagers, and she slowly completed “Abbott’s Reach” while working full time as an editor at the Bangor Daily News. The sequel is being published 24 years after its predecessor.
“No rushing,” she said, laughing.
Hamlin grew up in Bingham in the 1950s and 1960s, in the late days of the river log drivers, and always was drawn to the history behind objects.
“History is always with us and it informs the present, and as we speak, we’re making history,” she said. “When you walk around a town or city, you don’t have to take in too many details and you see it. It’s there in the architecture, it’s in the museum, even this road out here [Main Street in Bangor] was once the Atlantic Highway that, at one point, British troops stomped up and down.”
“Abbott’s Reach” doesn’t follow the typical heroine. M suffers bouts of “melancholy” or depression, an illness that is revealed in the first scene of the novel as she wades into the water beside Abbott’s Reach, her grandmother Fanny’s boardinghouse.
“She’s fallen in love with someone she wants to spend the rest of her life with, and at the same time she’s trying to get over the loss of a sister and the fact that she didn’t grow up with her parents,” said Hamlin. “She’s wise enough to know that on her voyage, she’s going to learn new things about herself, and she’s also wise enough to know that she has wise women in her life that she can listen to.”
To the delight of Hamlin fans, several of those wise women are the brave characters who persevere in tumultuous events in “Pink Chimneys.”
All of Hamlin’s main characters are fictitious, though some are based loosely on historical figures, and select peripheral characters, such as Queen Emma of Hawaii, are real people. The author used ships’ logs to learn about life aboard merchant vessels that traveled along the East Coast and around South America’s Cape Horn.
The most difficult part about writing historical fiction, for Hamlin, is getting every historical detail right in order to develop an authenticity of place that pulls in readers. The dialogue and mannerisms come naturally to Hamlin, even though people of the 19th century acted according to stricter societal rules.
“I just figure that people are people and emotions are emotions,” she said.
“Pink Chimneys” and “Abbott’s Reach” can be compared to the writings of English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817), with strong female heroines, romance and honor, humor and rumors, parties and elegant fashions. But Hamlin writes from a 21st century point of view, and her journalistic experience pushes the story along at a faster pace than Austen’s novels. As a Maine native, Hamlin naturally writes the charm of the region into her scenes and characters.
“I don’t think it’s possible for me to completely write a historical novel that doesn’t bring some of my modern sensibility to overlay that, but I think that’s OK,” she said.
In fact, Hamlin’s Aunt Barbara, who is fond of romance novels, told Hamlin that she liked “Pink Chimneys,” but that she should “put a little more spice” in her next novel. Hamlin heeded the advice and wrote of the passionate moments between M and her husband, adding excitement and depth to M’s voyage.
Hamlin writes for herself and has no concept that her fiction will be published. She began writing the first chapter of “Abbott’s Reach” with a vision of M, and the character’s actions led her to the next scene.
“It’s like a movie rolling in my head,” she said.
The characters are bright, amusing and entertaining, and the adventure Hamlin has brewed is turbulent as a tempest at times, but also full of light and beauty, both local and foreign. When you pick up the book, choose a comfortable seat on a rainy day, because the many forks in M’s road will keep you guessing which way the story will go.
Hamlin already is wondering about the next generation of Fanny’s family, though she isn’t making any promises about a third novel.
“I had this flash of M’s oldest daughter meeting her husband on a roller rink, and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s the late 1800s, there could be something there,’” Hamlin said with a smile.
She’ll celebrate the publication of “Abbott’s Reach” with a signing and reception at 6 pm. Monday, April 4, at Brewer Public Library, 100 South Main St. in Brewer.
“It has been birthed,” said Hamlin. “It’s going out into the world and it’s going to find its own way, just like ‘Pink Chimneys’ did — or not.”
For information, visit www.islandportpress.com. Hamlin referred to several books while writing “Abbott’s Reach.” These books include “A Seafaring Legacy” by Julianna Freehand, “The Log of the Skipper’s Wife” by James Balano, “Letters From the Sea” by Parker Albee and “Petticoat Whales” and “She was a Sister Sailor” by Joan Druett.