According to the CDC, commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous ways to make a living. But certain people are drawn in a big way to this physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding work, like the hardy folk who fish for lobster off the coast of Maine. To identify lobstering simply their “job” misses the fierce pride they take in doing work that many of them learned from their parents and grandparents. It’s a way of life.

Today, increasing numbers of women do this challenging work, and with text and images Ali Farrell’s just released Pretty Rugged: True Stories From Women of the Sea introduces us to them in a winning way.

Like Rockland’s 100-year-old Captain Virginia Oliver, whose grandfather fished off Andrews Island at the beginning of the 20th century. Farrell tells us that Virginia’s sons, aged seventy-eight, seventy-six, and the youngster at seventy-four, continue the lobstering life. Currently, Virginia fishes alongside her middle son, who hauls six hundred traps. After ninety-three years of fishing, Virginia now runs a mere two hundred traps of her own. “She says it’s important to keep busy, be independent, and not worry about what other people think you should do.”

Author Ali Farrell

Each of Farrell’s twenty-three stories focuses on one particular woman, but many of the stories involve other fishing women—relatives and co-workers—so that readers encounter well over two dozen of these amazing women.

The work demands that they be “pretty rugged,” but the subjects of her book are a diverse lot in terms of educational and socio-economic background and work experience.

Sarah Leiter, photo by Hannah McGowan

As a youngster, Sarah Leiter helped her father haul lobster traps. She worked for years as a marine biologist before turning to lobstering in her native Maine. Her turning point seems to have been the 2017 death of her younger brother, a lobsterman, who succumbed to substance use disorder in the opiate epidemic. Two weeks later, she found herself serving as “sternman” on a lobstering boat. “’I spent every sleepy morning on deck either on the verge of tears or filled with a rage that rivaled the raging sea itself. But the back of a boat was the best place to grieve.’”

Leiter, who plans to continue lobstering, speaks powerfully about the opiate epidemic that afflicts those in her industry, as it does workers in many others.

Here, and elsewhere in Pretty Rugged, author Farrell lets her eloquent subjects speak for themselves, and the book’s photographs capture these women, heart and soul. The principal photographer is Hannah McGowan, with loads of other shots provided by Mandy Willet, Jennifer Bechard, Terry Boivin, Julie Eaton, Joel Woods, Celeste Sandstrom, Cheryl Clegg, Sherry Estabrook, and the author Ali Farrell. Plus historical photos, courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum, and artwork by Kathleen A. Fox.

Captain Yvonne “Beba” Rosen

Story after story in Pretty Rugged earns the reader’s respect for these women whose work lives reveal so much about their character—and about what matters in life. Their stories need to be told. As author Farrell puts it in the book’s dedication, they, their ancestors and those who will follow them have “salt in their veins and strength in their heart.”

Julia Howard, photo by Hannah McGowan

And Brava to Ali Farrell for this wonderful book!  Next week, we’ll look at her story, her turning points, and how her work life sustains and strengthens her. 

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Ned Bachus is the author of Open Admissions (Wild River Books, 2017) and of the TURNING POINTS blog on and on his OPEN ADMISSIONS Facebook Page. City of Brotherly Love (Fleur-de-Lis Books), his book of stories, was awarded the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction.

One thought on “TURNING POINTS—Pretty Rugged

  1. Fascinating! Not something I would ever have expected. Thank you for bringing this to us!

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