As noted here last week, sometimes the experience of watching a film or reading a book can cause us to think differently about something, to change/learn.
Brother Joseph, my American history teacher in junior year of high school, assigned a novel set during the American Revolution to provide background and context for the course. Reading Kenneth Roberts’s Rabble in Arms proved to be one of my favorite high school assignments, and set my mind on the mysteries of Maine.
At the time, I’d never been to Maine, though on visits to Uncle Jean-Léonce’s near-the-border Quebec farm, I’d gaped at the wall of forest behind the single building on the American side of the tiny border crossing. On the Canadian side, farms and an occasional village broke up wilderness that defined the adjacent northern extreme of Maine, thousands of wooded acres frequented by numerous nonhuman species.
Empty logging trucks entered Maine there, to return to the nearby sawmill loaded with tractor trailer-length logs, though I was an adult before I ever witnessed a vehicle actually pass the gate. A whole nation, my own, lay beyond that forest line, but you’d have to trek a long way before you’d find an American human. Clearly, mystery and adventure lay at the other end of those dirt roads.
Rabble in Arms tells of the northbound wilderness journey through Maine to Quebec made by Colonel Benedict Arnold’s secret invasion force in 1775, a mesmerizing tale that challenged my two-dimensional understanding of America’s most well-known traitor.
Two years later, as a college freshman I turned to Arnold as the subject for my second semester English research paper. That spawned library campaigns that taught me more about Arnold and about Maine.
Four years later, after my first year of teaching at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, I spent a summer at a teachers’ institute in western Massachusetts. My friend Paul, who’d also discovered Roberts in high school history, was working in a marine biology lab in Boothbay Harbor, Maine.
When the Fourth of July gave us both a few days off, I drove my Volkswagen Beetle up to Maine. In next two days, Paul and I climbed Mt. Kathadin, canoed in Moosehead Lake, and found the roadside plaque marking the spot where Arnold’s troops portaged their batteaux from the Kennebec River on their decimating winter expedition up to Quebec City, nearly changing the course of the war.
The madcap sojourn only heightened my interest in Maine, which grew steadily over summer vacation visits, and culminated in our move to mid-coast Maine when I retired from teaching. Over the years, I’ve hungrily read articles and books that deal with Arnold’s amazing march through the Maine wilderness. I kind of light up when I meet another person who also appreciates this too little known story.
A recent Saturday morning visit to Belfast’s United Farmers Market of Maine introduced us to Maine author Norman R. Kalloch, who was signing copies of his novel, A Long Way to Walk: One Family’s Tragic Journey Through the Maine Wilderness. https://www.amazon.com/Long-Way-Walk-Familys-Wilderness/dp/1633811409 Historical fiction based on an actual incident, A Long Way to Walk tells the story of an immigrant family’s journey along pretty much the same route taken by the Arnold expedition, only eight years later and in the opposite direction.
Even today, the Dead River region through which Arnold’s soldiers hacked, trekked, portaged, and paddled their way to Canada remains pretty much impenetrable wilderness. Having lived there for years, Kalloch describes the rugged terrain with authority. Highly knowledgeable about both historic events, he skillfully intertwines the two improbable narratives. A talented storyteller, he renders a page-turner.
By the time of the American Revolution, agricultural and punishing legal changes forced many of the English sheep farmers of just below the Scottish border to move to the cities or emigrate, including two brothers, one who went to Boston then to New Gloucester in the district of Maine, and Robert Forbes, who brought his wife Mary and their four children to Quebec City, where Dickensian conditions awaited them.
Determining that their best chance for survival is to find their way across the Boundary Mountains to brother Peter, they set out with neither adequate resources nor skills, and at the wrong time of year.
Their story would make a heck of a television series. Kathleen and I kept maps within reach as we read A Long Way to Walk, tracing the family’s blunders and successes in tough and beautiful country that we have admired on driving trips to Quebec. We’ve long been awed by Arnold’s northbound expedition, and now thanks to Kalloch’s novel we feel that way about the Forbes family’s southbound odyssey.
For Norman Kalloch, reading about Arnold led to a whole string of decisions, including the idea of writing A Long Way to Walk. I’m glad he did.
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Ned Bachus is the author of Open Admissions (Wild River Books, 2017) and of the TURNING POINTS blog on nedbachus.com 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.