The Working Waterfront

Biblical echoes in Maine community life

Reissued Ruth Moore novel still relevant

Tina Cohen
Posted 2022-08-22
Last Modified 2022-08-22

Speak to the Winds
By Ruth Moore, Islandport Press edition, 2022, first published 1956

Review by Tina Cohen

Ruth Moore (1903-1989) was born on Gotts Island off Mount Desert Island. Growing up there, she witnessed the transition of that small fishing village into more of a summer colony with its seasonal residents “from away.”

She left to attend high school in nearby Ellsworth, then went to the state teacher’s college in Albany, N.Y. as an English Lit major. Her early jobs included investigating crimes for the NAACP, editor at Reader’s Digest magazine, and managing a fruit farm in California.

Increasingly focused on writing poetry and fiction, she lived for awhile in Greenwich Village, part of its artist community. The second book, Spoonhandle, was published in 1946 and made into a movie, Deep Waters (filmed on Vinalhaven in 1947).

The Hollywood production reworked her story, an outcome she found disillusioning and maddening. However, the income allowed her to buy land in 1947 in built their home in the village of Bass Harbor in Tremont . She and her life partner Eleanor Mayo built their own home there and stayed the rest of their lives.

Moore’s fictional community had lost its cooperative spirit, no longer valuing tolerance…

Moore published 13 novels and three collections of poetry. As described on the Ruth Moore pages of the Islandport Press website, “Her works are emotionally, politically, and socially complex reflections of life in small-town Maine, written with vivid descriptions of the landscape, and including local dialect.”

Speak to the Winds

Although I was familiar with the Deep Waters film because of its Vinalhaven connection, Moore was an author I had not yet read. As a fan of Elizabeth Strout and Carolyn Chute—similarly incisive and empathic writers depicting small town Maine life—I suppose I should have. But it took the recent prompting from my editor to get me there, alerting me that Islandport Press was now reissuing Ruth Moore titles.

Speak to the Winds is as relevant today as it would have been in Moore’s time, portraying life on an island where generations of families persist, carrying on the work of lobstering, growing food, raising children, weighing choices like leaving for further education or other jobs, and accepting into the community those coming “from away.”

The title, however, still puzzled me after finishing the book. Speak to the winds? I know there seems to be an effect, when speaking into a strong wind, that the sound goes nowhere. Was that what Moore was portraying—perhaps a certain frustration with the effort to communicate—a kind of “talk to the hand”?

But once I googled it, the intended meaning seemed clearer. It’s a Biblical reference, from a chapter from the Old Testament book o Ezekiel. After Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 BC by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the temple—which had been Israel’s pride and glory for almost 400 years—was reduced to ashes.

Warnings from God had gone unheeded. When God spoke to Ezekiel, telling him to “speak to the wind for me,” God intended that wind to resuscitate, breathe new life into those he saw as spiritually dead. Moore, certainly familiar with wind along the coast of Maine as a force to be reckoned with, could have seen it as potentially enlivening as well as a means to changing direction.

There is also an implication that, as with Ezekiel, individuals can make that difference and get a community back on track, reviving the values that had brought them cohesion and cooperation before.

And that theme is at the center of Speak to the Winds. Moore’s fictional “Chin’s Island” community had lost its cooperative spirit, no longer valuing tolerance, respect, and the traditions which once united them. Instead, tension among factions blossomed, and distrust, mean-spiritedness, and gossip undermined resolution.

In our own times, the pandemic challenged us to remember our success as communities relies on tolerance, respect, healthy communication, and valuing our neighborly connections. Resuscitating ourselves, rebuilding our lives—Moore understood these are recurring demands that come in many forms and must be grappled with constructively .

Tina Cohen is a Massachusetts-based therapist who lives seasonally on Vinalhaven.