Tag Archives: Maine woman writer

Looking for Dorothy: Dorothy Gilman in Portland, Maine

Every few years I read one of my favorite books, Caravan, by Dorothy Gilman. Although I rarely re-read fiction, there’s just something utterly delectable about this book. Pure escapism, and a unique love story. I read Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax spy series, also sheer entertainment, while growing up in California. In researching a bit about Dorothy Gilman after re-reading Caravan, I was amazed to find that she lived in Maine, and is one of our “Maine women writers”! I set out on a quest to discover more about her life in Maine.

A digitized letter at the Maine State Library gives Dorothy Gilman’s address as 7 Fox Court, #410, in Portland, in 1978. Abraham Schechter in the Portland Public Library’s Portland Room helped me find out where Fox Court was, which was on a street parallel to lower Exchange Street, between Fore and Middle Street. Not much is left of Fox Court, just an alleyway that has been renamed Patton Court, after World War II general George Patton. There is a parking garage on one side and the back of the storefronts on Exchange. It appears that soon after this letter dated August 1978 Fox Court changed to Patton Court, according to the city directories, although there is still mention of it in the 1982 Portland city directory – the listing for Exchange Street states that in between 26 and 29, Fox Court begins and Milk Street ends. There is still a little alleyway there – perhaps remnants of Fox Court, although a little unclear, as Fox Court paralleled Exchange Street.

In the 1978 city directory there is still a listing for Fox Court, as being “from Exchange Street to the Canal Bank parking lot.” More specifically, there is a listing for “7 Fox Court Studios.” Perhaps this was some kind of artist studio? From what I hear, this was a tough neighborhood in the 1970s. In the 1920s it sounds like it was even worse, according to the 1924 tax records: “Remarks – This lot is covered by buildings of no value, most of them being in a decrepit state. There is some little income but could not get it.” Fox Court buildings may have suffered from Urban Renewal, as well as “paving over paradise to put up a parking lot” (or parking garage in this case).

The Portland Room’s newspaper index led me to an article about Dorothy Gilman in the Maine Sunday Telegram, Oct. 24, 1982, which gives more clues to Gilman’s life in Maine. It states, “Ms. Gilman had lived quietly in Portland for five years,” and goes on to say that her move to Portland was “more or less random” after deciding that she no longer wanted to live permanently in Nova Scotia. Apparently living in a small fishing village had run its course. Starting out leasing a condo on the Eastern Promenade, she discovered that there were warehouse apartments on the fourth floor above Exchange Street, where she was still living in 1982. Unfortunately I couldn’t find Dorothy Gilman (Butters) in the city directories for those years so I’m not sure exactly where she lived. If the back of her apartment was on Fox Court, perhaps that’s where her mailing address was. There is a building on that side of Exchange Street that has four floors, so perhaps that was her building. The article in the newspaper has a a more exact description of her apartment.

Fox Court (now Patton Court) – building with four floors was perhaps where Dorothy’s apartment was?

Possibly the building Dorothy Gilman lived in with the four floors

I will continue to research, but for now, when I walk by the alley that was Fox Court, or stroll down lower Exchange Street, I will think fondly of Dorothy Gilman and her wonderful, transporting, books.

P.S. I found the book that is mentioned in Gilman’s letter to Shirley Thayer at the Maine State Library, “A new kind of country,” at the Portland Public Library, which tells of her life in a small town in Nova Scotia. From what I’ve read so far this book will remind Long Islanders of our lives on an island in Maine, in Dorothy Gilman’s usual charming way. The Long Island Community Library has seven of her books, including “Caravan” and several from the Mrs. Pollifax series.

Kate Douglas Wiggin – Maine woman writer with California roots

Years ago, when I was the Special Collections Librarian at Westbrook College (later University of New England), and in charge of the Maine Women Writers Collection, I met Glenys Tarlow, collector of books by Kate Douglas Wiggin (1856-1923). She offered to give a talk about Wiggin, which I followed up on. Through that talk I met Carla Turner, who owned Kate Douglas Wiggin’s summer home, Quillcote, in Hollis, Maine. Carla was kind enough to invite me out to see her beautiful home, and she also took me to the Salmon Falls Library, which was established in 1911 by Kate Douglas Wiggin as the Salmon Falls Village Library and Tearoom (every small town needs one!). It was truly an honor to meet these generous women, connected to Kate Douglas Wiggin – one of the wonderful side benefits of my job.

Many people are familiar with Kate Douglas Wiggin’s most famous book, “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” but many don’t know of all Wiggin’s other talents and interests, including as an educator (a leader in the free kindergarten movement) and composer. As a native Californian I was intrigued to learn of Wiggin’s connections to California. Teenage Kate’s family moved to Santa Barbara, where I also lived as a teenager in the nearby town of Carpinteria. In her early 20s she headed the Silver Street Kindergarten in San Francisco—the first free kindergarten on the West Coast of the United States (I was born in nearby Berkeley and lived in San Francisco after college).

What is also interesting about Wiggin is how she was connected to Maine, despite being born in Philadelphia. When Kate’s father died, her mother moved the family to Portland, and then Hollis, Maine. Kate later attended Gorham Female Seminary. She spent time off and on at Quillcote throughout the years, getting involved in the local community, and even setting one of her books in Buxton. When she died at the age of 66, her ashes were scattered on the Saco River.

As you can see, I feel a bit of a kinship for this famous author who was bi-coastal, with roots in the two places I’ve lived the longest – California (26 years) and Maine (27 years).  

If once you have slept on an island…

Some of you may be familiar with the beginning of a poem by Rachel Field, “If once you have slept on an island, You’ll never be quite the same.” I recently read a book about this Maine woman writer, that allowed me learn more about Rachel Field’s life, including her life on her beloved Sutton Island. The Field House: A Writer’s Life Lost and Found on an Island in Maine by Robin Clifford Wood, dispelled my false notion of Rachel Field being a sweet little old lady in a rocking chair knitting. Obviously I knew nothing about her, but that must be my impression of some of these Maine women writers, especially those who wrote children’s books. The real Rachel Field (1894-1942) was a sophisticated cultured woman who actually spent more time in New York City and California than at her Maine island home. And sadly, although she was sweet, she didn’t live long enough to be old (and she didn’t appear to be little). Now when I see one of her books, or hear the familiar phrase, “If once you have slept on an island…” I will have a different picture in my head of Rachel Field.

Aside from the Maine woman writer aspect, which I always enjoy learning about, I liked this book for the dual story – the thread between Rachel and the author, with the island home of Rachel Field tying them together. What a treasure for Robin to live in the home of this author, to really absorb her history, and to be enchanted enough to feel the call to write her biography. Truly a labor of love. I liked reading Robin’s letters to Rachel – you can feel the emotion. And I enjoyed reading about Robin’s research and visiting sites related to Rachel.

Rachel Field is best known for the Newbery Award–winning Hitty, Her First Hundred Years. I finally read this book several years ago, and liked it so much that it made my top 10 books read in 2018. Several of her books were made into movies. She was quite prolific, writing novels, non-fiction, poetry, and drama.

For those of us who are not only lucky enough to be able to sleep on an island, but to live on an island, Rachel Field is worth a second look.