Mary Ellen Chase
Islandport Press, 377pp, $15.95
When two books named Windswept arrived at my door within days of each other, my first thought was to review them together. Not happening! The books had absolutely nothing in common except the title. Last month's Windswept was an examination of winds as they affect climate. This month's is a generational novel about a Maine family.
The Maine-based company, Islandport Press specializes in reprinting classic Maine literature. Windswept was published in 1941, hit the New York Times best-seller list within six weeks and was in its fifteenth printing by 1952. The success of the novel allowed the author, Blue Hill native Mary Ellen Chase, at the time a teacher at Smith College, to purchase the property on Petit Manan Point which had inspired her epic.
In the novel, the founder of the Windswept dynasty and the house that would become the ancestral hall, is Philip Marsten, a partner in a New York marine architectural firm. On a sailing trip down east in 1880, he falls in love with the wild coast east of Schoodic Point and buys vast acreage. With the help of a talented local-the veritable "noble savage" Maine style and a Bohemian servant the grand house is built. .
In the next generation, son John eschews a career in the family firm in favor of scholarship. There a lots of to and fro-ing between Windswept and New England prep schools, Harvard, New York and Europe-John's specialty is French/English translation. And by the time his son Philip comes of age World War one is raging.
The household is peopled with eccentric servants and exotic guests over three generations. Births, deaths and adventure of the sylvan sort fill the days of the family. Twenty years fly by and it is the eve of World War II. The world's tragedies dwarf the family's sad times.
In the prologue of the novel, Chase follows female members of the third generation as they tour Europe by car in 1939. They are stopped at a crossroad by a lumbering caravan of German military vehicles. The end of the book brings the reader past the prologue in time-one year after that experience and Ann Marsten recalls the foreboding. Her young brother who has been studying at Cambridge is about to join the R.A.F.
The novel isn't for all of today's readers. Only the drumbeats of war are familiar to modern life. The dynastic character of the Marsten family is the antithesis of today's fragmented households. Emotional nourishment from and attachment to the land expressed over and over by Chase feel like concepts that died with Robert Frost (except for a few romantic die-hards-which include a lot of Mainers).
Chase's Victorian prose style may frustrate some modern readers. She never uses one adjective when she can use two. She rolls the characters' thoughts over and around and through like pudding on the tongue. Sentence structure is ornate and full of winding clauses. She embroiders the trivial and makes it important-which is really more content than style but a technique rarely used today. Long, elegiac descriptions of the land sometimes overwhelm the humans who inhabit it. The mood created by this rich and ruminative use of words is one of distance, inevitability and acceptance. For the reader who relishes this style, it is pure escape. In 1941, that's no doubt exactly what Chase wanted to provide.