A Visit Home

Spring has sprung, cold gusts are kicking up grit, and novelist Elizabeth Strout ’77 poses for the camera on a street in Portland, where she was born.

Strout is in the state promoting her new novel, Abide with Me, the story of the fall and redemption of a minister in a small Maine town (Random House). Tonight she’ll appear at a South Portland bookstore. She’s done the publicity routine before: Her debut, 1998’s Amy and Isabelle, was a popular and critical favorite.

Novelist Elizabeth Strout ’77 was photographed last spring in Portland, Maine, by Phyllis Graber Jensen.

The slender Strout stands in the chilly shade of a building’s porch. Across the street the flat, strengthening sunlight of March bathes a row of wooden houses. It’s an Edward Hopper kind of light.

“I miss the way sunlight falls on Maine houses,” she says. Strout is a longtime Brooklyn, N.Y., resident but lived much of her earlier life in Maine. And the state — its natural realm, its rhythms, its people — lives large in Strout’s novels.

Maine, she says, means “just about everything” to her.

Her parents were born in Lewiston, a city Strout came to love while at Bates. Her father taught microbiology at the University of New Hampshire. Her mother taught high school writing and early on encouraged her daughter’s authorial aspirations. The family shuttled between Durham, N.H., and a house down a dirt road in Harpswell.

“That’s where my parents’ sense of home was,” Strout says, “so that’s where my sense of home was.” (Her brother, Jonathan, remains in Maine, a Freeport dentist and photographer.)

“My parents knew the names of all the trees and the wildflowers and the birds,” she says, and were generous with that knowledge. “We knew where the first violets could be found and knew what a cardinal’s call sounded like.” Strout’s attunement to nature is a constant in her prose, as ornament, symbol, and psychological mirror.

“I find her Maine incredibly real. I’d put it in a league with Annie Proulx’s Wyoming,” says publisher David Foster ’77. In particular, Strout captures the way Maine “can be so grand and so incredibly claustrophobic at the same time,” he says. “People are physically distant, but because there aren’t very many, her characters are forced to confront one another day in and day out — not unlike eating at Commons.

“You can’t hide in the crowd in Liz’s novels or in Maine.”

Entering Bates after her junior year of high school, Strout loved theater and majored in English. She studied creative writing with English professor James Hepburn, who, she recalls, at graduation offered her a bracing dose of reality about the writing game: “Once you’re out of here, nobody will care whether or not you write another word.”

After Bates, in England and America, Strout worked a veritable Yellow Pages of jobs — waitressing, performing as a nightclub pianist, selling mattresses, and working in the Bates secretarial pool, to name a few.

She earned a law degree at Syracuse but didn’t like the work, and went on to teach English at Manhattan Community College. (She now teaches in a low-residency writing program at Queens University, Charlotte, N.C.). Strout published her first short story in 1982, and her byline has since appeared in Redbook, The New Yorker, and various literary journals.

But she reconnected emotionally with Maine only as she got into Amy and Isabelle. The story of a daughter and mother whose similarities bring them to a grinding conflict, it’s set in a depressed mill town during an oppressive summer. “I began to realize, ‘Oh, there is your sense of literature and place,’” she explains. “It was enormously big.”

The first novel, the author says, arose “naturally and organically.” Abide with Me was more deliberate, the product of Strout’s fascination with religion and with the ministry as a job, as opposed to a spiritual vocation. Set in 1959 in insular West Annett, upriver from the first book’s Shirley Falls, it depicts how his wife’s death affects the Rev. Tyler Caskey and his other relationships.

Young, capable, and well-meaning, Caskey “loved people and they liked him back,” Strout says. “He thought that his life was going to go in a certain direction.”

But no. The demise of Lauren, his wife, a rich girl ill-suited for hardscrabble West Annett, derails the preacher and all his relationships — except the one with his housekeeper, which goes weirdly deep even as it’s revealed that the pair, like Amy and Isabelle before them, share a life-changing secret.

Strout rejected as trite the notion of Caskey losing his faith. Instead, “I was interested in Caskey losing his sense of self,” she says, and in what she calls the “statute of limitations” on grief: what happens when the congregation’s needs from Caskey overturn their sympathy for him?

It isn’t pretty. Strout’s vivid characters take umbrage over everything from his parenting to his taste in desserts. Abide with Me hits its climax when Caskey, trying to preach a sermon that will return the flock to righteousness or at least shut them up, fails spectacularly. It’s this failure that clears the air; hubris, for a change, plays to the hero’s advantage.

Jim Hepburn’s inoculation against hubris comes to mind hours after the photo session, at the bookstore in South Portland. Striking in a black suit and black-framed glasses, surrounded by stacks of Abide with Me, Strout is reading to 30 attentive listeners about Caskey and his housekeeper.

“I’m just so glad to be able to write,” Strout said earlier in the day. “On a day when it goes well, like when you have a sentence you’re pleased with, it’s wonderful. There’s no feeling like it.”

She adds, with a laugh, “And then there are all those days in between when things don’t go so well, and there’s no feeling like that, either.”