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Poet Heather McHugh on Just East of Nowhere

Updated: Oct 10, 2023


Just East of Nowhere sitting on a rock.

Scot Lehigh's debut novel, Just East of Nowhere, is a gritty, coming-of-age novel set in a small coastal town in Maine. It explores the troubled past of Dan Winters while also diving into a poignant cast of other characters who are caught in the undercurrents of this struggling small town.


This was an intended introductory essay written by American poet Heather McHugh for Just East of Nowhere by Scot Lehigh. Here is a link to Scot's website.

 

The true protagonist of “Just East of Nowhere” is a lesser-known community in Maine, part of a border-crossing archipelago on the edge of perennially hard-up Washington County. I feel a rush of recognition on encountering some names and places in Scot Lehigh's book, because I've had a passion for the town since I was 21 and free to roam. To most Eastporters, I was just one among an era's surge — the blithe decamping hippies from the suburbs and the cities south and west. But I had settled on that island – Moose Island, as it is also known — out of deeply held affections. My father's work in oceanography had brought him down salt-water coasts from his own roots in BC (place – British Columbia — not time). The taste for salt was in my blood. The craggiest of northern coasts had always framed my dreams. Through my own college years in Boston, it was Maine, the ultimate marine escape, I yearned for. Stepsisters in extremity, the northern coastal towns of Lubec and Eastport are locked by their locations, dispositions, customs in an ardent rivalry for one superlative: the Easternmost in all America. Lubec could claim the easternmost of geographic points, but then Moose Island was incorporated as a city and could claim to be the easternmost of those. Its population year-round is about the size of my old high school, 1,500 souls (or thereabouts). In the 1970’s these seaside towns were neither "modernized" nor yet bulldozed into the suburb-styles of tract so many of us had fled north escaping. My own Moose Island 19th-century abodes were free of overlays of vinyl paneling, shag rug, or Styrofoam dropped ceilings. Expediences of that kind were just about to overtake the town's drafty Victorians, but my first kitchen there could boast a kerosene and oil cast-iron stove. There wasn't even cable yet; the TV rabbit-ears pulled in, through weather, one or two unsettled signals. Eastport’s isolation and the county’s economic woes briefly worked to my advantage as a disenchanted artist not yet able to afford a foothold south of Kittery, but those same factors deepened the divides in town. The island once had nearly 30 sardine canneries. The last closed not long after my arrival. Working families would suffer and the rolls of unemployment swell. No locals could afford to scorn the money and consumer goods the children of suburbanites arrive to airily denounce. Electing there to grow their own food, cut their own wood, build their own inventive outhouses, some newcomers were arrivistes who had enough resources to enjoy an interlude of dropping out. But I was never to the manor born: The call that told me that my first book had been accepted for publication by Houghton Mifflin reached me via pay phone at the Eastport breakwater. I bet I still could find the old utility pole that it was bolted to, right next to Rosie's hot dog stand. Unlike the better part of the elective exiles, I took some joy in eavesdropping on wreathmakers and clamdiggers and berry-rakers, as we chugged down beers there in the WaCo Diner. The WaCo served as my informal office for a good part of the day. My own first teaching job was of a luckily peculiar kind. As part of the first low-residency masters' program in creative writing, I made my notations every day by hand on student manuscripts. (In those pre-Google days, the teaching there was done by snail mail.) It was my custom to reward myself with pie every 50 pages, and my coffee-fueled booth was nicely spiced by Genevieve’s wry counter-talk. The rag she wiped the tables with deserved a novel of its own. Back then I lived for poetry and nature, but the salt (and pepper) in me loved the local lingo. "That dog ugly?" yelled a guy a block or so away, approaching me. I covered up my mongrel's ears. "We never tell him so," I yelled back. What he really meant was, "Does he bite?" It took a wicked while for me, back then before the Internet, to ferret out the etymology. But, luckily, at home I had a brand-new Oxford English Dictionary, with its own magnifying glass. Scot Lehigh's book attests that residents of towns this small, this battered by the elements, are sure to get to know their neighbors (faute de mieux). And everyone's a neighbor of a sort: The island is just two miles long. Forty years have passed since I departed, but from the Olympic West today I lovingly subscribe to the "Most Easterly Newspaper Published in the United States." That would be the Quoddy Tides, which on the second and fourth Fridays of the month still issues from a little family office there, a clapboard house immediately above the Eastport breakwater. Run these days by the youngest son of its founder, the one-and-only Winnie French, its first inside page still begins with tide tables, a list of the vessels entering and leaving, and the scallop-dragging/lobstering/fish-hauling/seining news. Nowadays, it also regularly features word of wood-chip businesses and the other shipping that comes through Eastport. Back then, you could catch four cod with just one handline overboard. They were so powerful, and huge, that I couldn’t haul them in alone. Now there are none. Refrigerated processing on board container ships, some from continents away, were as responsible as climate change.

The office of the Quoddy Tides has always been an anchor-piece to Eastport’s Middle End. It's fitting that it’s perched so near the breakwater, whose surface already was paved as wide as any two-lane rural road. It’s where the action is, and always was, in Eastport. Lobster boats and scallop draggers harbored in its L. Each evening, the breakwater was a beacon to a range of pick-ups and sedans — those Pacers, Pintos, Vegas, and Chevettes of local teens with cans of Narragansett in their clutches, coffee-brandy bottles in their crotches. Eastport’s teen-age scene is where Scot ponies up. He has a better ear than I have for that demographic, for its sparring, spirits, sports, and social life. Lehigh himself came up through high school there in Eastport. His dad taught English there at the high school for some years, giving him an extra vantage, two world views (the one at closer quarters and the one at large), a double-bind that well might complicate a kid's position, even as it deepens the dimensions of an insight. At the junctures between states of opportunity and class, the provinces of youth and maturation, between states of matter (land and water), and the kinds of language, Just East of Nowhere sketches what is liminal. Its narrative unfolds in sight of both the only sea route out (Head Harbor Passage) and the fogs so often coming inland, to obscure it. It’s a Downeast Bildungsroman where pressures read as fracture lines on adolescent upcroppings, and the characters approach the breaking points that mark the move into adulthood's afterlife. No matter where you go, the kid who rages has to learn to work. The kid who smirks will learn to smile. The kid who wants to know the larger world must leave. For Eastporters, Route 9, known locally as the Airline, is the fastest way to Bangor, where you get your interstate—not just the straightaway to Beantown, but to every kind of road beyond. When you leave Maine, you enter Interstate America. They've got a different kind of life down there. A man could wind up in the Keys, which have their charm, or stay too long on Washington’s Key Bridge, which doesn’t, in the end. I know. I lived there too. Scot Lehigh kept his own New England ways about him. Yeah, there IS a world out there. But don't go rushing off, or on. Sit here Downeast a while.

 

Heather McHugh

Heather McHugh is an American poet who knows the Eastport area well and has written poems with its harbor-scape in mind. Some of her poetry collections include Upgraded to Serious (2009), Eyeshot (2004), The Father of Predicaments (2001), and Hinge and Sign: Poems 1968-1993 (1994). She is an educator and has taught literature and writing for over three decades, most regularly at the University of Washington in Seattle and in the low-residency MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College in Asheville.


Photo Credit: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation



 



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