90-year-old Presque Isle author celebrates release of new book

Posted Nov. 14, 2010, at 9:13 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 11:49 a.m.

CARIBOU, Maine — For Glenna Johnson Smith, the desire to write a book was sparked by both a longtime editor and friend and an urge to document her life among a population she “has great respect for.”

It is an uncommon quest for a 90-year-old, but one that the longtime Presque Isle resident easily fulfilled. Now, the Maine native and columnist for Echoes magazine is basking in the success of her new book, “Old Maine Woman, Stories from The Coast to The County,” which saw brisk sales in its first few days on bookshelves across the state.

Smith celebrated the launch of her 159-page book on Friday and Saturday with signings at the Mark and Emily Turner Library in Presque Isle and Mr. Paperback in Caribou. People started lining up at the library a half-hour before the signing’s start time Friday evening, and Smith signed more than 100 books that night alone. On Saturday morning, she quickly ran out of copies of the book and dispatched friends and family to secure more so she could appease her fans.

“It is so wonderful and a big surprise to see all of these people come out to buy my book,” she said Saturday, pausing between signings at the Caribou bookstore. “It is something that you hope people will want to read, especially since this is my first book, but you never know what the response will be.”

Born and raised in the Hancock County town of Ashville, Smith has lived in Aroostook County for more than six decades. A former high school English teacher who retired in 1990, she has written and directed award-winning plays, led Elderhostels and classes for seniors and conducted writing workshops. In addition to her work for Echoes, she also has been published in Yankee magazine; “Maine Speaks: An Anthology of Maine Writers”; “Old Women’s Wisdom,” and a number of other anthologies. She has won numerous awards for her work and civic contributions, including Presque Isle Citizen of the Year and an honorary doctorate from the University of Maine at Presque Isle.

Smith’s book is mainly a collection of essays that she has written over the past several decades for Echoes magazine, combined with new material. Echoes is a quarterly northern Maine journal of rural culture filled with feature stories, essays, poetry, personal stories and more. Smith said that Kathryn Olmstead, the longtime editor and designer of Echoes magazine, encouraged her to write the book.

“While I wanted to share some of my own experiences, I also wanted to tell the stories of some of the people of rural Maine,” she said. “I have a great deal of respect for these people. People in rural parts of the state work together, they care for their families and for their neighbors, and they make the most of what they have. It was something I saw growing up and continue to see.”

In her new book, Smith writes candidly and with humor about her life and that of people around her, starting with her childhood on the coast in the 1920s and 1930s.

The book has many tales about Smith’s youth, her marriage in 1941 and her move to Easton. She started out teaching seventh- and eighth-graders for $30 a week, and followed the progress of those students even after they left her class, seeing them earn master’s degrees and become lawyers. She tells of experiences raising her three sons, Mel, Steve and Barney, and starting over again after her divorce at age 53. At the time, real estate agents didn’t want to show a house or an apartment to a “middle-aged single woman.”

“That was probably the worst time in my life,” Smith acknowledged Saturday. “I had absolutely no self-confidence. When I was brought up, a woman was not told to have self-confidence. So I was facing life starting out all over again, and there were many times of self-doubt and fear.”

Smith also writes about life in the present day, her opinions on dealing with the latest technology with a “1920-model brain,” and learning what she considers some of life’s most important lessons.

“It is important to me to value everyday people, and I hope that is reflected in my work,” she said Saturday. “As I wrote in my book, the older I grow, the more I learn that people are more important than anything. The people of rural Maine have great qualities, and I think their stories should be told.”

Smith said that while this likely will be her last work of nonfiction, she is thinking about putting together a book of her poetry. She will conduct additional book signings in southern Maine in the coming weeks.

Her new book is published by Islandport Press, a Maine-based publisher of books about Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. It includes a foreword by author and Smith fan Cathie Pelletier.

For more information about the book, contact Islandport at 846-3344 or at books@islandportpress.com.

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