Barry’s book on Maine deserves a place on the shelf

Posted Nov. 17, 2012, at 4:55 p.m.

“MAINE: The Wilder Half of New England” by William David Barry, Tilbury House, Publishers, 290 pages, $30.

Why would anyone take the time to write a history of a state? Finding historical similarities between Madawaska and Kittery, which must have a lot more in common with Portsmouth, N.H., is a challenging task. Surely Bangor and Portland have a few things in common, but Portland has more in common with Boston. As for Ashland and Cape Elizabeth, forget it.

That said, what would we do without histories that valiantly attempt to trace the common threads that do bind us together? Maine’s thousands of miles of coastline and its hundreds of thousands of acres of forest knit us together even if the effect runs over into New Hampshire and Canada. Margaret Chase Smith and Samantha Smith and Seba Smith are people we can all identify with as a group. That goes for lobsters and whoopie pies as well.

Rarely do I write one of my century-ago columns about Bangor for this newspaper without going to the bookcase and thumbing through two or three state histories. My two favorites are “Maine: A History” by Louis C. Hatch and “Maine: The Pine Tree State from Prehistory to the Present” a series of essays by a large group of the state’s academic scholars.

Histories by Neil Rolde, Charles E. Clark and a few others coupled with a large collection of regional works on everything from steamboats and trolleys to the architecture of Bangor offer a wider field for checking last minute facts from the old Bangor newspapers I use for column fodder.

Now, William David Barry, one of our most knowledgeable state historians of the current generation, has stepped forward with an excellent new addition to this list. “Maine: The Wilder Half of New England” deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone who wants to have the best sources of state history readily at hand. It is the only history of Maine that I have actually read (almost) from beginning to end, which is perhaps the highest praise I can muster for any book at this stage in my life.

Barry does an impressive job of laying out the history of the Pine Tree State succinctly and in chronological order with important themes and trends summarized for even the least informed reader. Interspersed with his commentary are startling or little-known facts. How many knew, for example, that wealthy Gov. Percy Baxter, of Baxter State Park fame, lowered statehouse flags to half mast to honor his deceased Irish Setter? Or that Gail Laughlin, the first female state legislator, helped pass a law making it harder for men to have their wives committed to state hospitals solely on their testimony. Or where the expression, “As Maine Goes so goes Vermont” came from?

Equally important, or perhaps more important, the book is lavishly illustrated with many interesting, even startling images, accompanied by informative cutlines. Barry has included photographs, illustrations and paintings from libraries, museums and historical societies all over Maine. I suspect one could thumb through this book reading just the cutlines and pick up most of the salient points. There’s even a panoramic view of the demise of the Brady gang in downtown Bangor that I don’t recall seeing before, if that’s possible around here.

Like any history survey, this one deals with many subjects too briefly. Occasionally, passages amount primarily to lists of celebrities in various fields of endeavor.

I will also state my usual bias — there’s too much on southern Maine and not enough on the eastern and northern quarters of the state — The Other Maine. Of course tying events in all these places together into a publishable package is a horrendous task that must try an author’s patience. And in case I never noticed, a growing percentage of the population of Maine lives in the southern end of the state.

Bill Barry’s book would make a good Christmas present for anyone with an interest in Maine, even those people who don’t read much, but like to look at pictures, an increasing segment of our population I suspect. It has a good index and bibliography too, plus an interesting foreword by Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr., our state historian, for those of us who appreciate such diversions.

Wayne E. Reilly writes a column on Bangor history for the BDN.

 

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