June 18, 2018
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Tiny people explore Maine in UMF professors’ modern-day fairytale

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff

THE WICKED SMALL PEOPLE OF WHISKEY BRIDGE by Jon Oplinger and Elizabeth Cooke, October 2011, iUniverse, 146 pages, paperback $12.95, hardcover $22.95, e-book $3.99.

When Jon Oplinger moved to Maine in 1982, he sent self-spun tales of fantasy beings called “The Little People” to his children who remained in northern Ohio. In a series of letters, these tiny ambassadors taught his children about living in rural Maine.

At the time, Oplinger never imagined that the private fairy tales would amount to anything more than letters to his three sons — Peter, 14, Paul, 12, and Patrick, 8.

“I wanted a kind of vehicle to allow my children to look at Maine through fresh eyes,” said Oplinger, who had never been to New England before moving to Farmington to accept a position teaching anthropology and sociology at the University of Maine. “It’s a baseball term, but Maine is kind of a sneaky fast. I thought it was going to be the same as the Midwest, but was really different in many ways that kind of blindsided me.”

Almost 30 years later, the letters have become a children’s novel. “The Wicked Small People of Whiskey Bridge” was published mid-October 2011 in hardcover, paperback and e-book.

Oplinger is the author of two works on nonfiction, “The Politics of Demonology” and “Quang Tri Cadence,” but to turn his beautiful, fictional story into a book, he sought the help of his friend and colleague Elizabeth Cooke, professor of creative writing and author of the novels “Complicity” and “Zeena” as well as the children’s book “Tong Ting Finds a Family.”

“My first impression was that it was a gorgeous book and it had to find a way to get published because the portrayal of small-town people was so accurate, and then the particularities of Western Maine were just delightful,” said Cooke, who enthusiastically agreed to the project to co-author the book.

Cooke, originally from just outside Philadelphia, spent summers at Upper Dam, a popular fishing area in the Rangeley Lakes region, since she was a child. Feeling that western Maine was her true home, she moved there permanently in 1968.

The modern-day fairytale took Oplinger and Cooke five years to write, finesse and self-publish through iUniverse.

The story begins with a small colony of miniature people being forced to leave their ancient home, a volcanic crater, because the sulphur oxide that they breathe is dwindling. Their only hope lies in legends of a place called Sulfurland. A search on goose-back leads them Whiskey Bridge, a Maine town with air rich in sulfur oxide emitted from the local mill.

The tale, abundant with freeing imagination and clever humor, is eloquently written in conversational language, making the book an ideal bedtime story.

“He approached the writing of this book with the child’s spirit in him, a sort of seeing without judging — that’s very much Jon,” Cooke said.

While antics of the curious, green-haired, 1-foot people make for an entertaining progression of adventures, the book is also full of small lessons that pertain to today’s world.

In the book, Xandre, a young girl adopted from Guatemala, and her brother, Timothy, are the first to discover the colony of unusual beings living under their porch. The two children help the Little People understand the world of the “Big People” beyond barbecue chips and cardboard. And however subtly, the Little People teach the importance of accepting new people into a community.

“Children will be rooting for the people who are from away — invaders; they will be rooting for them to find a home,” Cooke said. “In a way, all of us as human beings are looking a place to feel safe and at home.”

In writing the multiple drafts of the book, Cooke was “fierce” about plot and grammar, recalls Oplinger, who tended to get carried away in the cultural aspects of the quasi-fantasy world. His formal education is most evident in the character names: Chan Chan, an archaeological site in Peru, Quiz Quiz, an Inca general in the 1500s, Ollantay, a character in an Inca drama and Huascar and Manco, Inca rulers in the 1500s.

“Huascar was originally named ‘Tupac’ after the Inca emperor, but my son pointed out that it’s also the name of a ferocious rapper and that I’d have to change that,” Oplinger said.

Cooke remembers her own childhood fascination with “The Borrowers,” tiny people brought to life by English author Mary Norton in a series of child fantasy novels published in 1952.

The story is intended for children ages 9-12, but Cooke said that she received enthusiastic feedback from a 7-year-old boy who is an avid reader. She also suspects that adults will equally enjoy the satirical humor and fresh perspective on Maine living.

“It’s something I worked on at a long time and it’s good to see the end of it,” Oplinger said.

Buy “The Wicked Small People of Whiskey Bridge” at www.amazon.com, www.barnesandnoble.com or your local bookstore.

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