November 21, 2012

BUSHNELL ON BOOKS: "Maine: The Wilder Half of New England" and "4KM"

Bill Bushnell

MAINE: THE WILDER HALF OF NEW ENGLAND
By William David Barry
Tilbury House Publishers, 2012
290 pages, $30
ISBN 978-0-88448-333-5
 
Many books have already been written about Maine’s unique state history, but few have been as entertaining and insightful as “Maine: The Wilder Half of New England,” by William David Barry.
Barry is an author and historian, lives in Portland, and clearly loves all aspects of Maine’s rich history.

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

This is an attractive, heavy-gloss paper product, loaded with maps and illustrations, and ably served by a complete and useful bibliography.

Barry covers Maine history from the Age of Exploration (prior to 1623), early colonization, relations with Native Americans, Revolution, and European imperial struggles, to statehood, the Civil War, both world wars, immigration, politics, economics, agriculture, manufacturing, shipbuilding, sports, the arts and the fascinating people who make up Maine’s colorful character.

Much of the book’s strength comes from Barry’s vivid narrative and his introduction of little-known historical anecdotes.  For example, few people know that in 1524 Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano dubbed Maine the “Land of Bad People” for the hilariously rude behavior of the Indians.

He describes the strange origin of the term “Yankee,” Maine’s unusual and contentious path to statehood in 1820, why Augusta was selected as the site of the state capitol instead of Hallowell in 1827, why the Blaine House became the Governor’s home, and why the Ku Klux Klan was so popular in the 1920s.

The usual historical figures appear — Joshua Chamberlain, James G. Blaine and “Fly Rod” Crosby, but Barry also tells why William King was known as the “Sultan of Bath,” and how Nazi Germany’s radio propagandist in World War II, “Axis Sally,” was originally from Portland.

This is not just a chronological list of events, but rather a human history of war, hardship, innovation, social awareness, political activism, pursuit of the arts and the remarkable resilience of Maine people.
 

4KM
By Raymond P. Jones
Outskirts Press, 2012
310 pages, $16.95
ISBN 978-1-4327-8927-5
 
Korea, the Hermit Kingdom, is seldom used as a backdrop for fiction, but Winslow author Raymond Jones offers an interesting fictional perspective in his self-published, debut novel, “4KM.”

Although proscribed as fiction, much of this uneven book is clearly autobiographical, reflecting Jones’ own experiences as a military policeman in the U.S. Army. He was stationed at Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone (four kilometers wide) which divided North and South Korea during the late 1960s.

The story spans nearly 40 years as the principal character, Rex Stone, now a widower, remembers his one-year tour as an MP in the DMZ from 1969-70, an experience filled with adventure, excitement and Cold War tension. Rex marries a Korean woman at the end of his tour, leaves the army and returns to his home in Maine. His wife dies 29 years later, always wondering what happened to her older sister who was lost in North Korea during the Korean War.

Rex has dedicated his life to finding his lost sister-in-law.  He knows well that communist North Korea is a closed society, and that his chances of ever finding the woman are less than slim.  Still, his contacts in North and South Korea give him a glimmer of hope.

Then, a cryptic telephone call sets in motion a dangerous plan to rescue the long-lost sister-in-law.  Unfortunately, Rex’s plan surprisingly reveals that he is an unwitting pawn in a much larger and more risky geopolitical scheme with deadly ramifications.

This is not great literature. It desperately needs the careful attention of a competent editor.  Still, the strength of this book is not the overwrought and unlikely plot, but rather the vivid picture Jones paints of duty on the DMZ, the serious gamesmanship played out at Panmunjom and his colorful portrayal of Korean culture.

— Bill Bushnell lives and writes in Harpswell.

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