June 19 – 25, 2020Vol. 22, No. 2

Ken Roberts: Historical Novels

by Martha F. Barkley

The orange sky softened to a rosy yellow: dimmed slowly to a pallid green. The mountains bulked black against the fading light, and as the stars began to appear above them the lake darkened until there was no telling where water ended and shore began.

I thought I would simply skim through Northwest Passage, but the 734-page page-turner kept history and local Maine color too close to my heart to not read and find out, what would happen next?

When we end up in London, after crossing the Atlantic several times, the homesick artist and his wife long for "the glitter and gleam of fields, trees, rocks and sea beneath our burnished Maine sky." The grime of London and the Old World makes the coming Revolutionary War inevitable.

No wonder Charles Dickens visited here twice: I highly recommend his two adventures in the New World, too, one before the Civil War and one after. Different time in history but a similar contrast between the two Atlantic worlds. Parts of Dickens travels in Pennsylvania were so good, I Xeroxed copies and drawings for my sister who lives near the Susquehanna.

Ken Roberts collaborated with N.C. Wyeth in Trending into Maine. I anxiously await this inter-library loan, because E.B. White stated that it "…takes you into the kitchen, sits you down by the stove, hands you a doughnut, and stuffs you full of Arundel, Maine traditions, Maine smells, Maine people, the hardships of soldiering, the pleasures of ducks' breasts, the bravery of sea captains' daughters". Arundel was a favorite of mine years ago and it had a dark, yet bright, oil painting by N.C. Wyeth on its cover. Both March to Quebec (eighth grade required reading back in the day) and Boon Island were unforgettable in land and water descriptions and historic happenings.

I guess I have never seen such multiple publishing dates before for one author of so many titles, many in Braille as well as languages around the globe. His tales take the reader everywhere, kind of like James Michener and his many books (fiction and non-fiction), so in Northwest Passage you soak up the many gory battles with the French and the Indians. Starving as they trek on and on, Rogers makes the Rangers stop while he bravely goes on looking for food, rafting along the river. "We were pretty far gone. If you're ever starving…don't waste time on fish. Try to get hold of marrow bone. There's more nourishment in a good marrow bone than in a fifty-pound trout."

The several run-ins with Copley the artist brought a personal connection: our Charleston home is located on The Elms Plantation owned by Ralph Izard. He and his wife had their portrait painted in Tuscany by Copley. Since the Izards gave away their wealth for the Revolutionary Cause, they could not pay Copley. In Ken Roberts novel, he fully expresses Copley's frustration with the wealthy being stripped in the New World by the rabble rousers who were fighting King George III.

Another personal connection was a friend recently asked me about the Isles of Shoals. Much of Northwest Passage is anchored around life in Portsmouth and Kittery, so I discovered on page 493 a sentence about this island, which is now a tourist cruise destination, just twelve miles off the coast. "…[T]hose islands aren't unlike the famous Isles of Greece you hear about so much of. Greatly overrated, those Grecian islands. Sailed among 'em as a midshipman on the old Bacchus a few years ago…"

Makes me want to check out Boon Island again, which was riveting reading, recommended to me by a Charleston neighbor. Both Lynn and her husband Tom would summer in Maine like we do. I could tell by our friendship and book exchanges that we both loved good literature and Maine stories always ring true.

Why not try a Ken Roberts "oldie but goodie" read? I still can not believe how I read the entire Northwest Passage this week between jumping in the lake. Trending into Maine contained so many N.C. Wyeth oils, so I read and read Ken Roberts' tales. You will too!