I enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoirs Eat, Pray, Love and Committed when I read them several years ago. I have never picked up one of her novels until recently when I stumbled upon Stern Men, Gilbert’s first novel, published 20 years ago. Her writing style is intriguing in her fiction as well as her non-fiction.
Stern Men tells the tale of two small islands off the coast of Maine and a centuries-old lobster fishing war. The inhabitants of the two islands grapple with each other while they experience both success and hardship in their way of life. Lobster fishing is dangerous, difficult, and anything but glamorous.
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The novel’s protagonist, Ruth Thomas, is a smart young woman with a foul mouth and a desire to someday run her own lobster fishing operation. The characters are engaging and the dialogue seems real. Many of the men on the island discourage Ruth from following that dream, pushing her instead to attend a mainland college.
Ruth’s relationships with the people of the island as she uncovers secrets of her family’s past are what make the book such a fun read. Ruth navigates relationships with her parents, a woman who is like a mother to her, and a variety of other island residents, and the quirks of real people shine through Gilbert’s writing. It is a reminder that sometimes the small towns and communities that shape our young lives are worth revisiting. Sometimes we cling to our roots, be it good, bad, or otherwise.