As the Crow Flies
By Phil Crossman
Review by Tina Cohen
A new collection of essays by Vinalhaven’s Phil Crossman features on its cover a bird’s eye view of the island’s Carver’s Harbor, with a bird whose eye is appropriately airborne. That bird is a crow, and not incidentally, the nickname of the book’s author, Phil Crossman.
Crows are smart and crafty, keen observers of their environment, and sometime-plunderers, ready to investigate potential prizes. What catches this crow’s eye? The cover scene (a drone photograph by Adam Osgood) pictures a very humanized landscape, replete with ferry terminal, waterfront buildings and docks, Main Street, parking lots, in-town neighborhoods, and a harbor full of lobster boats. All that implied human activity suggests rich pickings for a crow, and an observer like Crossman.
The collection of writings here, subtitled “Ruminations on Life and Living,” revives essays previously published in Island Institute’s publications, Island Journal and The Working Waterfront.
Crossman opens the book with a self-description: “I enjoy writing about Vinalhaven, this island, this tiny piece of the world I live in, about its environment, the others with whom I share it, and our relationship to the bigger picture and our prospects. I’m likely to see the potential for humor in nearly everything, often finding it at the gleefully precipitous edge of propriety. On the other hand, nearly everything compels composition if I think about it long enough.”
True enough. Many of these essays consider their subject with an eye to comic absurdity. Others, more sober, reflect on big ideas like patriotism, including a confession by the author. In his introduction, he explains: “…after having been a Republican for over 50 years, I recently switched parties. That was a big deal, and I can’t imagine, given this political climate, that I’m alone in having made that transition.”
In casting his eye over the Vinalhaven scene, Crossman sympathetically describes a range of island characters—some disguised by phony names and some straight from reality—rendering them archetypes we can all relate to.
Just as endearing are stories from his own childhood there. I especially loved the one titled, “Uncle Tim.” Crossman begins with a litany of colorful island house names. One figured large in Crossman’s life, the “Bucket of Blood,” where his family lived several years when he was a young adolescent.
(An aside to the author—please, expand your childhood recollections into a book for younger readers!)
The story, without revealing too much, is about a haunting. But as other-worldly as that is, his experience is grounded in kid concerns like the TV antenna pulling in “Lone Ranger” episodes (held in the necessary rooftop position by Dad) and the neighbor’s cow visiting at mealtimes.
This book celebrates small-town island life even while acknowledging some downsides of its intimacy; for example, never able to forget one’s childhood transgressions once preserved in community lore.
Crossman is edifying and entertaining; as this newspaper’s editor Tom Groening has described him, “both wise and a wiseass.” His persona as “Crow” makes me hope we could all be crows, benefiting from the ability to both take in a big picture as well as have a focus on details.
Compassion and empathy, respect and tolerance—these come when we realize how much we share, have in common. Those values don’t apply to islands only; as Crossman concludes, “America will become great again when we can demonstrate that we truly care about our fellow human beings.”
Copies of the book are on sale in Rockland at the Island Institute store, Archipelago, in Vinalhaven at the Tidewater Motel, New Era Gallery, Phineas Fogg, and the Island Closet, or through email@example.com.
Tina Cohen is a seasonal resident of Vinalhaven.