Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Wooden Nickel and Hull Creek: A Pair of Books about Lobstering in Maine

The Wooden Nickel

Author: William Carpenter
Publisher Format:Back Bay Books, Paperback, 368 pages
Year of publication: 2003
Subject: Lobstering in Maine
Setting: fictional towns on Maine Coast
Genre: fiction
Source: public library
Rating:  4.5
Recommended: yes, but not for those who object to rough language

Author: Jim Nichols
Publisher/ Format: Down East Books (2011), Hardcover, 256 pages
Subject: Lobstering in Maine
Setting: Fictional Town in Midcoast Maine
Genre: fiction
Source: Review copy from publisher
Rating: 4.5
Recommended: Yes

These two books are eerily similar, but also essentially different. Both have a Maine lobsterman as a protagonist. Both men have troubled marriages, both come from long family lines of lobstermen, and both sail wooden lobster boats. Both men are caught in the dilemma of trying to make a living and save a family homestead during a time when lobsters are not 'biting,' when taxes are rising, and the world is changing more quickly than they want.

In The Wooden Nickel, William Carpenter gives us Lucky Lunt, a high school dropout whose entire world is one big mid-life crisis. His home, built by his grandfather, is mortgaged to pay for a new engine for his wooden boat (The Wooden Nickel -the only wooden boat left on the waterfront.) His wife has "found herself" as an artist and has turned his garage loft into a studio. His son, a gay skinhead who has also dropped out of high school, is tattooed, and into drugs, - a combination which does not go over well with Lucky. His daughter, who appears to be the only one taking education at all seriously, is headed for college if the money can somehow be found. She manages to land a position as an au pair to a rich family "from away" and begins (at least in her father's view) to put on airs.

To add to all of this, Lucky is without medical insurance and therefore owes the local doctors and hospitals several thousands of dollars to pay for his recent open heart surgery after his heart attack. The doctor's proscriptions against smoking, drinking, cussing, and too much lifting on his boat have left him cross, scared, and totally lost on how to go about getting his life back to the good old days, his son back in school (or at least working on his father's boat), his wife back in his bed, and red meat back on his plate.

We read this one for our local book discussion group, and many readers, while admitting that this scenario could be all too real here in Maine, had a very hard time with Lucky's very crude language and overuse of a certain digital expression. Lucky is a man whose choices are limited by his background, his lack of education and a hefty dose of poor luck.

In Hull Creek, a new novel just published here by Down East Books, Jim Nichols's protagonist, Troy Hull, is a sixth generation lobsterman, who lives alone (his wife has already divorced him) in his family's home, which he too has mortgaged to pay for upkeep and repairs to his wooden boat. In fact, he is the only working waterman left in the town. All the other waterfront properties have been bought up by 'swanks from away' who have razed centuries old houses to replace them with monstrous McMansions, and whose fiberglass sailboats do little else but tip over in storms.

Troy, who dropped out of college when his father died, wants desparately to honor the family's traditions, but again, lack of money, poor lobster crops, and a series of less than brilliant choices leave him few options. His so-called friends also offer many opportunities for short-cuts that could have him quickly in need of a "get out of jail free" card.

Both books present their characters in real situations, often faced with choices that are not choices at all but are only a series of "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenarios. We find ourselves often thinking "What would I do if I had to make this choice or that one? Would I choose to take the risks, to expose myself to jail time, to put myself in harms' way, or put others in danger?" We may not always agree with their actions, but both authors give us excellent portrayals of the decision making processes of these men.

These are both rugged, tell-it-like it is books. While similar, there is plenty of difference (the language alone separates them quite well) between the attitudes and expectations of both men. The characters, while facing similar "opportunities to excel" are both essentially likeable, and make these books both well worth reading.

Wooden Nickel's Lucky is one of the funniest characters I've come across in a long time. Think Archie Bunker on a lobster boat. His world is inhabited by meatheads who cannot understand or honor his commitment to living in the past, and his frustrations with being misunderstood and unable to articulate his fear, his rage and his feelings of helplessness manifest themselves the only way he knows how - in spicy, raw, crude language and obscene gestures. He's a flawed character you end up loving. The lead female character, Ronette, is a street tough, 20 year old whom Lucky hires as a sternman. Life gets even better (or worse depending on your perspective) after that.

Hull Creek's Troy Hull on the other hand, has more education and a better grasp of options, is more able to at least understand his frustrations, even as he resents the moneyed do-nothings who are threatening his way of life. Nichols gives us some delightfully amusing town characters who provide some comic relief to the tragedy, and a young woman Nicki, a childhood friend, who wants to help Troy overcome his shyness and reluctance to become involved with another woman after his divorce. Troy's language is more refined and his problems have more options available to solve them.  And Nicki is certainly not as bawdy or blousy as Ronette.

In the end, if asked, I could not tell you which I liked better. They are both well-written, well-plotted books with settings that are hauntingly familiar to me -- Hull Creek is fictional but the surroundings are not, and are all within a five mile circle of my little house on the inlet--and with a cast of characters I meet at the post office and in the general store every day. If you want the real Maine, try either of these. I promise you, this is not the sailboat and lighthouse postcard of the Chamber of Commerce. These books give you hardworking, god-fearing people who are trying to do the best they can with the cards they were dealt.

Many thanks to DownEast Books for the review copy of Hull Creek, and many thanks to the Maine Humanities Council for its wonderful "Let's Talk about it" book discussion series which led us to choose The Wooden Nickel for our reading group.

My giveaway of a copy of Hull Creek ends July 5th. Enter here.


  1. gee, I was just looking at Hull Creek in a catalog I got today from DownEast Books...you need to tell me your "connection" there!! lol

  2. I had read another review of Hull Creek in the Portland Press Herald. I definitely want to read that one!

  3. I already had Hull Creek on my wish list, but I think despite the language I would like The Wooden Nickel too. Having lived in Maine, I know what real lobstermen are like and a little bit about their tough life. These sound great.


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