May 26, 2018
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Former Colby dean pens comedy-mystery based on Belgrade

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff

“THE DAM COMMITTEE” by Earl H. Smith, November 2011, North Country Press, 266 pages, paperback $15.95, Kindle ebook $9.99.

More than 70 years of Maine experience prepared Earl Smith, former Colby College dean, to write his first novel, “The Dam Committee,” which landed in local bookstores in November.

“It’s sort of a comic murder mystery adventure romance morality tale,” said Smith, 72, in a recent interview.

The novel’s fictional town, Belfry, strongly resembles Belgrade Lakes, Smith’s home for the past 30 years. The town meeting, Fourth of July parade and karaoke night at the local bar and grill are all based on Smith’s memories of small-town living. The book’s Knight’s Store is a play on Day’s Store, Belgrade’s local market. And Loit’s Island is fashioned after the real Hoyt’s Island.

“All the stuff comes out of my own experience, even though it’s certainly embellished,” he said. “In a small town, you tend to know a lot of people, and there are a lot of characters, and interesting things go on. If you’re a writer, you can’t resist.”

Though Belfry is a typical tight-knit community, everything is stirred up when Henry and his best friend, Nibber, stumble upon a murder and find a suitcase full of money in the snowy woods.

The town’s Dam Committee, led by Harry and responsible for operating the new dam, becomes something else altogether when its meetings turn into secret occasions to make decisions about what to do with the mysterious bundle of cash. But in a small town, secrets are difficult to keep. Everyone has their own theories about the murder and word is circulating about the missing money.

Smith has long been a writer. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Maine and was editor of the Maine Campus. While working for 40 years at Colby College, first as a professor and then as a dean, he was always engaged in writing nonfiction. And after retiring in 2002, he wrote a history of the college and another history on the college’s esteemed art museum.

“I think I grew tired of telling the truth,” he said of his switch to fiction. “I tend to write funny things, even in the history of Colby [book], people will sometimes tell me they see humor in it because I do see the world that way — that’s just me.”

A morning person, Smith starts his day with a cup of coffee at 5 a.m. While working on the novel, he hid away in his home office and spent the morning writing.

“After lunch, I’m no good,” he said. But in case an idea pops into his head unexpectedly, he makes a point to carry a notepad with him the rest of his day.

“I don’t use my phone when I drive, but sometimes I write,” he said, laughing. “And when I’m walking my dog, I’m always talking to myself.”

“The Dam Committee” is told through Harry, a millworker who echoes Smith’s natural humor. His wife, Diane, is the brains of the outfit and the one who keeps plans rolling without a hitch. Nibber is a lovable handyman, humbled by financial troubles and eager to win the favor of Debbie, a waitress from the local bar and grill. Winston, Harry’s dog, completes the group. Based on Nicholas, Smith’s golden retriever, Winston sighs, shrugs and expresses just as much opinion and emotion as his human companions.

So far, reception of his novel has been positive and sales have been good, Smith said. Lupine Cottage, a co-op of 40 Maine artists and craftspeople, selected “The Dam Committee” as December’s Book of the Month, along with Dahlov Ipcar’s “My Wonderful Christmas Tree.”

The Maine Crime Writers, a group of 10 crime-mystery authors in Maine, has welcomed Smith to the genre and given his work three endorsing reviews, excerpts of which are displayed on the back cover of the book, along with reviews by other authors.

Author Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote, “Earl Smith’s suspenseful, playful novel, ‘The Dam Committee,’ is a crackling good murder mystery, to be sure. More importantly, though, it’s a love letter to the small towns of central Maine and all the irascible characters they contain.”

“I know what the Maine voice sounds like,” said Smith, who never has lived out of state and remembers conversations with his grandparents, who were also Maine residents. Smith’s deep understanding of rural Maine is reflected in his story by the love that Belfry residents have for communal history and their reluctance to change, their good humor in the face of hardship and the care they show for neighbors in need.

“It’s the same discussion going on in small towns everywhere — We can’t build a new town hall, the church is falling down, we don’t have a big enough library,” Smith said.

Though Smith is new to the fiction writer fold, people living across the country have ordered “The Dam Committee” from online distributors such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Smith has been communicating with readers on Facebook, though he has yet to learn how to Tweet.

He has a sequel in mind, but he has yet to decide whether he’ll continue writing fiction. When asked what experiences prepared him to write this novel, he said, “I just had to live for 70 years, that’s all.”

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