"Island Secrets" by Eastport author Catherine J.S. Lee Credit: Courtesy of Catherine J.S. Lee

From a distance islands are mysterious, pushing us away, daring us to forget them.  Yet, still, that ribbon of blue water that separates is like a magnet, a siren’s eternal call pulling at our thoughts. And in a remote area such as Down East, islands are commonly shrouded in fog — a floating veil that conceals their secrets. We wonder: Who lives there, what is life like there—who loves, who hates and, most importantly, what stories might islands harbor?

In “Island Secrets: Stories from the Coast of Maine,” Catherine J.S. Lee pulls from her own island experience providing a captivating journey of island life through a splendid collection of short stories. Lee is a seventh-generation Mainer who writes, teaches and has had her short stories and haiku published widely in a variety of print and online journals. Lee lives in Eastport.

From a dozen well-crafted stories comes an abundance of life situations from a place known as Way Down East and its two fictional islands, Spruce Island and East Haven. One is a working-class island where fishing is everyday life; the other is a summer retreat for those simply looking to dip their toes Down East. Separately the stories show a penchant for the emotive response to island life; together, they are a testament from an observant writer comfortable with it all.

Lee conjures characters from old days old and new days, presenting them and their situations as they were intended, with some of the stories written more than 20 years ago. Sticking to the edict that Downeasters do not like change, Lee gives us characters untarnished by time, feeling real and essential to every story.

In “Never Love a Fisherman,” the life-altering call any fisherman’s wife can receive while her husband is out at sea is the catalyst that brings the sudden realization to everyone in a fishing community about the fragility of a life lived on the water.

Rainey Faulkingham is the fourth generation of her family to spend summers on East Haven. She thought she would summer there forever, until she meets Justin, a fisherman from Spruce Island. They fall in love, marry, and a fishing life takes hold of them both as each waits for something to happen, something that ultimately will change the plans they have made.

Rainey is at work on her latest children’s book when the wife of her husband’s sternman comes through her front door saying, “Something’s happened to our guys, Rainey.”  From that moment on, the story is about the unknowing flinches of reality that permeate every second of time as the search for survivors begins.

 “Sheila Mac had said that was how life worked. And she was right, Rainey thought. We make our plans and we do the best we can with what we’ve been given. It’s like getting on a plane to Paris and ending up in Jamaica — not what we expected, a different world, a different beauty, but still a trip worth taking.”

In “Island to Island,” the dichotomy of two islands — East Haven and Manhattan — takes a back seat while the mystery of chance firmly plants its feet on both shores, giving the reader a front row seat to watch it all unfold. Artist and baker Lucas Castile returns to his grandfather’s island house on East Haven. Recently divorced, with his popular East Village bakery gone and his art stalled, Lucas is searching for something. Slowly, events give way to chance, his art is revived and flour, salt and yeast again find a home on East Haven. Something else, too, will become a part of Lucas, amidst the freshness of baked bread, dabs of paint and an abundant supply of sea breezes.

“Whatever happens, Lucas finally believes it’ll be okay. All the false starts and stupid choices and missed connections no longer matter. He gives Riley a thumbs-up, then turns his face to the breeze through the open window as they cruise across the causeway, heading towards the music jam and the future that lies beyond it.”

In “Gone Like Sea Smoke,” while out on a shakedown cruise of their scallop dragger, Five Sisters, Steve Nelligan tells his wife Heather about a decision he has made. He has decided to replace his dependable deckhand with his not so dependable brother, Skip, fresh home after four years in the Army. What follows, amidst family ties and marital secrets, is the unpredictable nature of life both on and off the water.  

“What I’m thinking now is how it can all disappear so fast. All those things so far beyond reason, they slip away just when you’re sure you’ve finally grasped them. All those things. They’re like sea smoke, if you think about it. The way it can drift right through your fingers as it obscures even the solid ground.”

Place creates the person, and a person can crystalize or cloud the luster of a place. Lee’s characters imbue each and every story with an essence of realism, flaws and all, while maintaining a constant grip on the past. Such is the beauty of story-telling, to create a sense of immediacy, while maintaining a connection to the past within that common sea called life. This superb collection of stories does just that and much more.

“Island Secrets: Stories from the Coast of Maine”

By Catherine J.S. Lee

Sea Smoke Press, 2022, softcover, $14.95


RJ Heller, Down East contributor

RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.