Alison Hawthorne Deming weaves a story of fashion, fishing and 5 generations of women
When the “collapse” of her 150-year-old cabin in Grand Manan could no longer be ignored, Alison Hawthorne Deming was faced with a practical question: demolish or rehabilitate. The question for her quickly became more philosophical: “undo” or renew. She began to ponder the stories of the people who had lived there before her parents bought the house in 1957. Her decision: “I knew the house would not come under my watch.
From these Hamlet-like debates over the fate of a house, “A Woven World” evolves towards a search for balance that honors the past while seeking a contemporary renewal. Deming need look no further than Grand Manan and herring fishing tools that might be a thing of the past.
Instead, and refreshingly (I’m thinking of Deming, first and foremost, as an environmental writer), she begins her contemplative journey at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She went to see Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘sardine dress’ – inspired by a particularly sexy film role of Rita Hayworth. After admiring the technicality of her silk, her myriads of sequins and her neat seams, she imbues the sardine dress with all the poetry of her natural writing. “Long ripples rise and fall, rise and fall, like a disturbance on a calm bay, lunar work at play in a field of light.” It could be a description of a calm night off her beloved Grand Manan.
Again, rather than returning directly to her island, she uses the dress to transition easily into a reminiscence of her maternal grandmother, Marie. She was a talented seamstress in New York, carrying on the work and name of her own mother, who had been one of Empress Eugenie’s seamstresses in Paris. And then, speaking of sewing, back to Grand Manan, where an old fisherman is mending his nets. “Makers,” thinks Deming. “Whose skill is so perfectly suited to the needs of the job, learned by observation and practice, patience and time.” And what will the fisherman use his nets to catch? Herring, which once canned, will become sardines.
It’s a pretty dizzying circle, more like a vortex. The centripetal force trying to hold all this disparate material together is the story of five generations of women: from the author’s great-grandmother to her own daughter. The search for the stories of the first two leads to personal memoirs, but by no means consecutively.
Deming is at his best in a pitch-perfect essay with the provocative title “Driving the Cadillac in Valhalla.” Valhalla, outside of New York, is where Mary, her grandmother, is buried in an unmarked grave. The chapter is a beautiful blend of in-the-moment observation, elegiac memory and history, all culminating in a restrained shock: “forty years after (Mary) died in her bed in our family home”, Deming is became the first person to visit her grandmother’s grave.
For now, the author puts aside the question of why or how it should be and pursues her grandmother’s youth. A stained and faded photograph taken in 1885 “suits a story that resists being told”. She can only follow the “fragments”. These are stitched together with the social history of the time. An entire chapter contains only paragraphs taken from other writers (Simone de Beauvoir being the most famous) on women and fashion styles in the France of Napoleon III.
Deming’s most reliable clues are the addresses on old letterheads from his great-grandmother’s sewing business as it was pushed to Manhattan by the ever-expanding city. Traveling up the West Side, she finds address after address obliterated by later developments. Finally, she sees a man with a “SUBWAY Wow 10% OFF” billboard and below, the latest address she’s looking for. Still standing, her great-grandmother’s house is now a Subway restaurant. It was “a Fellini film in which I suddenly found myself”.
Besides this personal archeology, the author explores the dams around Grand Manan and the stories of the fishermen. The biology of herring and the history of fishing take it all the way to Iceland. The Herring Era Museum is one of many museums specializing in a variety of obscure subjects; the list includes a phallological museum. Deming loves lists. In addition to the museums, there are different types of points (14), “lost trades and goods” recovered on microfilm (over 30), and many others.
There are many fascinating things in “A Woven World”; many stages of the author’s quest are beautifully framed. The occasional repetition from chapter to chapter suggests that the book began as a collection of essays. Perhaps that explains why, despite elegant writing and the gravitational pull of generational stories, its center ultimately doesn’t quite hold.
Thomas Urquhart is the former executive director of Maine Audubon and the author of “Up for Grabs, Timber Pirates, Lumber Barons and the Battles Over Maine’s Public Lands”.