Can lightning strike twice? It sure can when it comes to a long-ago published book that readers kept asking its author about and also happens to be that author’s favorite book. It’s just a matter of time until something has to give.
That time is now. After 18 years, all is right again with the re-release of Monica Wood’s collection of short stories, “Ernie’s Ark.”
Wood, a Maine native who continues to live and work in Maine, is a novelist, memoirist and playwright. Her novel, “The One-in-a-Million Boy,” garnered a 2017 Nautilus Award and the New England Society Book Award. Her memoir “When We Were the Kennedys” was an Oprah magazine summer-reading pick and won both the May Sarton Memoir Award and the 2016 Maine Literary Award.
Having the pleasure of reading and reviewing Wood’s “The One-in-a-Million Boy,” I was familiar with her uncanny ability to make one want to connect with her characters. Whether it’s a 104-year-old woman who believes anything is possible, or the indomitable Ernie Whitten, who loves his wife and tries to prove it every single day, Wood’s characters are a delight with which to share some time.
This collection of short stories takes place in Abbott Falls, a fictional Maine paper mill town. At the beginning we meet Ernie Whitten, a retired pipefitter who is gloomy about everything and trying to make the best of a bad situation that has gotten much worse — his wife is dying. In the midst of a union strike with all of its “in your face” trademark frustrations and standoffs between a company and its workers, Ernie and a cast of connected characters propel the book’s tonal message of redemption forward in a mix of first- and third-person narratives.
Wood deftly pulls each of her story’s protagonists out into the open — front and center — for the reader to get a good look at. These are people we might know or, at the very least, are shadows of pure human interactions we all have encountered. Wood’s characters, though flawed, try their very best to fulfill that most basic and eternal human emotion — love — like the unwavering love of a husband, an older brother, a dying wife, an absent granddaughter or even a criminal, years later, seeking redemption.
The opening title story is the book’s foundation. And like the pieces of wood lovingly placed and nailed into the form of an ark, each story that follows maintains a familial grip on that wooden symbol of love that sits in Ernie’s yard. What began as a creative whim to delight his wife becomes reality, a symbol of unrelenting love.
“He stayed through lunch, and was set to stay for supper until Marie remembered her dog and made him go home. As he turned from her bed, she said, ‘Wait. I want my ark.’ She lifted her finger to the windowsill, where the boat glistened in the filmy city light. And he saw that she was right: it was an ark, high and round and jammed with hope.”
In the last story “Shuffle, Step” we find Ernie again, only this time he is in an unlikely friendship with a girl who lives in the neighborhood. Raising money for her middle school jazz band, she sells Ernie a raffle ticket, which turns out to be the winning ticket. His prize is dance lessons, which he reluctantly agrees to attend with the girl. On the day she gives Ernie the news, she spots the forlorn ark.
“I watched you build that boat,” Francine said.
“Ark,” Ernie corrected her. “It was an artistic inspiration.”
“I knew that,” Francine said. “Everybody wondered what the heck you were doing. You know what I told them?”
“I can’t say as I do.”
“I told them creativity can’t be thwarted.” She blinked a few times. “That’s what our band director always says. He’s an extremely smart man.” Ernie pondered this for a moment. “My wife liked it,” he said.
Between these bookends of exceptional stories are more exceptional stories. All are connected, yet separately strong, unique and remindful of who we may be or people we may know as a friend, neighbor, confused teenager or loving husband, father or grandfather.
This is an emotional read, a good for the soul sort of book — one to savor. I laughed, cried and turned down the corners of some pages knowing I would revisit them, just like a long lost relative or friend. That is the essence of a good story, to make you forget and remember all at the same time.
Short story writing is not easy: the form is tight, at times constrictive and requires the best a writer has. But to connect a number of short stories into a singular theme and consistently maintain that all-important rhythm while not losing the reader — well, that’s an art form, and Wood is an artist. With this work she has captured the soul of a Maine mill town, its inhabitants, both good and bad, along with its quirkiness and traditions.
By Monica Wood
David Godine Publishers, 2020, soft cover $15.95