The Working Waterfront

Blue Butterfield’s paean to Maine

Illustrated memoir is heartfelt and dazzling

Review by Carl Little
Posted 2024-06-10
Last Modified 2024-06-10

Maine, A Love Story
Self-published, hardback, 192 pages

Standing in line at a community lunch at the Neighborhood House in Northeast Harbor back in February, I overheard two neighbors talking excitedly about Blue Butterfield’s book Maine, A Love Story. They spoke of the personal quality of the narrative and the splendor of the author-artist’s illustrations. On both counts they were spot-on.

Known for her colorful notecards and illustrated calendars of Maine subjects, here Butterfield joins memoir to her art in an altogether enchanting manner. As we read accounts of her life in, and adventures around, the state, from Portland to Katahdin, with a substantial stopover on Mount Desert Island where she was raised, we turn the page with keen anticipation of how she will bring her memories and visions to life.

In “If You Give a Girl an Outhouse,” an overture of sorts, Butterfield conjures early life, providing a look back at a challenging childhood from the perspective of a 52-year-old. In coming to terms with the ups and downs of an unconventional family situation, she reconciles with the past, her stunning illustrations creating an ambience of healing.

In coming to terms with the ups and downs of an unconventional family situation, she reconciles with the past

Butterfield’s Maine tour includes stops at Bernard Langlais’s sculpture park in Cushing (now managed by the Georges River Land Trust), blueberry barrens in Harrington, Tumbledown Mountain, Bar Harbor (and its Fourth of July parade), Acadia, the Hundred Mile Wilderness, Wolfe’s Neck Park, Congress Square, a lake house in Raymond, and Peaks Island, the latter described as “a foreign land of slow walkers and sweet salt air.”

Butterfield visits and depicts a number of my favorite places on MDI, including Northeast Creek, known for its wild cranberry bogs. She also shares her mother’s amazement at skating among the trees at Sieur de Mont Spring the winter the Nature Center flooded and froze. I was lucky to be one of many locals who got to wind in and out of this magical birch tree glade.

The illustrations consist of bold and dynamic woodblock prints, with occasional additions of watercolor or tempera.

Butterfield helpfully shares her printmaking process in the section “How to Make a Reduction Woodcut,” which blends advice, beginning with “Don’t overthink it,” with the harrowing account of her father’s accident—he was hit by a drunken driver while biking—and its painful aftermath. The sequence of impressions of a woodcut print of a boardwalk on the Fore River Trail seems a perfect visual accompaniment to the account of his recovery.

In and among Butterfield’s landscapes there are Brussel sprouts, chickadees, snowy owls, and lady slippers, the latter encountered at age 14 while on a walk in the woods in Bar Harbor.

“And there we came upon them between a few huge oak trees, previously unwitnessed to the world,” she writes.

Such is the sense of wonder—and caring—that marks the writing throughout Maine, A Love Story. Butterfield’s personal journey, which includes working in a nursing home dementia ward, eventually turns to romance: “first comes love, then comes marriage,” then two sons in the baby carriage. She shares lots of joy—and some trepidation—in the final sections, including a mother-son bonding biathlon in Norway, Maine.

In “a word about the format” at the start of the book, Butterfield notes that the reader isn’t obliged to read the book in any particular order:

“Maybe you prefer to leaf through some pictures with a cup of peppermint tea balanced on your lap and the cat curled on your chest,” she writes. That’s what I’ve been doing since finishing the book a few weeks ago. This splendid book rewards return leafing.

Carl Little’s latest book, compiled and written with his brother David, is Art of Penobscot Bay. He lives on MDI.