Greenlaw's lobsters -- crustaceous islanders

July 07, 2002|By Ann Hornaday | By Ann Hornaday,Special to the Sun

The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island, by Linda Greenlaw. Hyperion. 238 pages. $22.95.

Linda Greenlaw's first book, The Hungry Ocean, received terrific reviews for the intensity with which the author recounted her experience as the only female swordfisherman on the Grand Banks. Greenlaw has since moved back home, to tiny Isle Au Haut in Maine's Penobscot Bay, to try her hand at lobstering. The Lobster Chronicles is Greenlaw's memoir of one particularly difficult season waiting for the hideous-looking but delectable crustaceans to swim into her traps. But more than a primer on the technicalities of lobstering, Greenlaw's book aspires to be a gentle guide to the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of island life, which can be likened to a cruise from which the passengers can never disembark.

So in the course of The Lobster Chronicles, we not only learn about the scientific and cultural history of lobster (it was once deemed so unsavory that to serve it more than once a week to prisoners was considered cruel and unusual punishment), but we meet Greenlaw's family and friends, many of whose clans have inhabited the island for generations. We meet Rita, a difficult neighbor with a penchant for peeping; Stern-Fabio, a sternman Greenlaw hires briefly but whose good looks belie a more larcenous soul; Dorothea Dodge, Isle Au Haut's postmistress and the various and sundry members of the Lobster Association, who must decide what they're going to do about the increasing incursions of outsiders into their local waters.

Early on in the book, Greenlaw holds out the tantalizing prospect that the Association will embark on some defining action -- whether in the form of legislation or guerrilla warfare -- to protect their cherished lobstering grounds. The period she's documenting, she writes, "would start normally enough, but would become a season when I would re-examine all I ever thought I knew about myself, life and lobsters."

Sadly, The Lobster Chronicles doesn't deliver on this promise, as Greenlaw fails to coax the sort of enduring or transcendent truths from her experience that would mark a truly great memoir. Over 21 brief, genial chapters the author breathlessly sketches characters and situations, eschewing the revelatory detail that makes the best of this sort of book come to life. No sooner do we meet some colorful local denizen than he's disappeared, without ever having spoken or done anything even vaguely memorable or emblematic. So stingy is Greenlaw with description that we don't even know what her family's house looks like.

This isn't entirely her fault: Having cashed in on the success of The Perfect Storm, in which her sword boat, the Hannah Boden, figured largely, and having earned a place on the best seller list with her first book, Greenlaw and her publishers naturally sought to follow up quickly with something, anything. But in the rush, Greenlaw has been ill-served by her editors, who should have forced her to go deeper with her observations, whether of the island's geography or her own interior struggles. Without such support and prodding, Greenlaw's second book leads the most generous reader to the conclusion that, as a writer, she is a very good fisherman.

Ann Hornaday is a former film critic of The Baltimore Sun, and is currently reviewing movies for The Washington Post. She lives on a very small island on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

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