The Life of a Maine Lobsterman, reviewed by Melissa Waterman
Andy Gove of Stonington was a life-long lobsterman. He was also many other things — a halibut fisherman, a herring spotter, a record-breaking lobster boat racer. And now, posthumously [Gove died in June at age 90], he is an author. The Life of a Maine Lobsterman, published by Penobscot Books, is a collection of Andy’s tales, stories of life long ago and the ways in which he and other fishermen made a living from the sea.
Gove has a storyteller’s knack for addressing his readers as if they were in the room with him. From his opening sentence — “How would you like to read a book on the life of a lobsterman?” — one is drawn into his world.
Gove was born in Stonington in 1930 but grew up on Eagle Island with his grandparents, Earl and Laura Brown and his great-grandfather, George Brown. He recounts a childhood focused on simple things, like horsing around with his best friend Johnny Quinn, and planting seeds with his grandfather for the family vegetable garden.
Some of the stories have a sweetly innocent tone, such as the one about the hen Gove encountered as a very young boy. “…one day when I was about two years old, [Grampa] was repairing the hen yard fence and I had to pee. One old red hen was walking by looking for worms. I can’t remember why, but I took aim for the hen. Grampa hollered, “Don’t do that!” but he was too late. The hen thought she had a worm and I can still see her flapping her wings trying to pull me through the fence. I guess I howled and Gram rocked me the rest of the day, but I learned to listen and what “no” meant.”
Living on Eagle Island was hard work for the few families that made their homes there. Gove recounts digging clams in the winter — “They would be awful good to help keep the gas out of your empty stomach” — smoking and salting fish, canning mackerel and herring and anything that grew in the garden. Gove’s grandfather taught him the skills of a fisherman. Earl Brown converted a fourteen-foot sailboat owned by Dorothy Sawyer into Gove’s first power boat. “Grampa should also have a lot of credit for making a power boat out of a sailboat. He put in a shaft log in place of the centerboard and took out the mast, replacing it with a five-horsepower one-cylinder Gray engine. This looked like a battleship to me.” Soon Gove began delivering supplies to Eagle Island families for 5 cents a day, lobstering, and helping his grandfather with the official mail run from Stonington.
Throughout the book Gove continually expresses his gratitude to those who have helped him. As he says in Chapter 2, “The truth is that all of the old people were nicer than the young people are today. They cared for each other. They didn’t just care for themselves.”
After fishing for years from his 14-foot boat, Gove saved up enough money to buy a second 22-foot boat. But the boat leaked and its engine was no good. A Stonington garage owner named Carlisle Webb who knew Gove told him he would buy him a new engine and be paid later. “He bought me a flat-head, six-cylinder Plymouth, a brand new one. He helped me get it in my boat. He really helped give me a start,” Gove recounts.
Gove and his wife Rose moved off Eagle Island to Stonington when their first daughter, Myrna, reached school age. Gove worked seven days a week saving money to buy a house, but even so, money remained tight in the new family. He spotted an ideal place on the harbor but realized he didn’t have the money to purchase it. “Alfred Colwell, one the buyers I sold my lobsters to, found this out and said to come up to his office. He said, ‘Let me make a call and see if I can help you out.’ He called Bar Harbor Bank and I heard him say that he had one of his best fishermen here who wanted to buy a house. I didn’t know that he was on the board that ran the bank. They told him no problem. … The Colwell Brothers that helped me when I needed it will be always remembered for their help and kindness to me.”
The Life of a Maine Lobsterman is full of stories of boats, engines, fishing practices, storms, and the men and women who played a role in Gove’s full life. Peppered throughout are pictures of Gove’s family, Eagle Island, the men he fished with, as well as photos taken while he scanned for herring schools. Delving gently into a world nearly gone, of self-sufficiency and hard work, through Gove’s tales is just the thing to pass the hours during the long nights of winter.
The Life of a Maine Lobsterman is available from Penobscot Books, PO Box 36, Stonington, ME 04681 or buy online HERE.