BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Decades ago, before anybody was dead, all summer every summer, summer after summer, they came to the great shingled, turreted, dormered, and balconied house above Frenchman’s Bay. With its treasures and delights, its happy rooms, its forbidden staircases, its scary places, and its secrets, it was more than a house. Some houses are just temporary roofs over one’s head, some are projects to be fussed over and then abandoned, and some are Real Estate. But there are houses, particularly the houses of childhood, that are whole worlds, and when the house is gone, it is like banishment, and life afterwards is lived in exile. Burnmouth was such a house.
–From The Bar Harbor Formation by Ann Rutherfurd Austin
The title of Chicago author Andy Austin’s The Bar Harbor Formation might come from one character’s fascination with the geology of the Gilded Age retreat of Rockefellers, Astors, Tafts, and Vanderbilts, perched on the rocks of Mount Desert Island in Maine, but most probably stems from summers the author and her protagonist, Katie Bowman Morse, spent growing up there.
Andy, a Vassar College graduate and longtime Hyde Park resident who wrote about her 44 years at a courtroom artist for ABC News in Rule 53: Capturing Hippies, Spies, Politicians and Murders in an American Courtroom, has worked on her first novel for the past six years.
Andy recently evoked for us a summer at Burnmouth on Eden Street:
“I grew up in Boston and spent all summer at my grandmother’s house, along with my nine cousins, a set from Baltimore and another from Connecticut. We would play capture the flag and roll down the hill, marvelous summer things to do. My first memory is the fragrance of the bridal wreath blooming there.
“Burnmouth, which is almost another character in my novel, was the name of the house in real life, and I kept it in my book along with the name of the cab driver Clarence Gooch. The house was built in 1886 and torn down in 1979. It is called ‘Bournemouth’ in the picture book Lost Bar Harbor. According to that book, my grandmother—and thus my mother, aged 15—took over the house in 1925. I believe my grandfather’s family had other houses in Bar Harbor before that. My parents got their own house in Bar Harbor in roughly the early ’50s, and my grandmother died in 1969.”
Here’s how she describes a summer’s day in her novel:
For as long as any of them could remember, Katie and the other grandchildren felt Burnmouth was their kingdom, and Granny McAllister their dowager queen. They couldn’t have been happier subjects.
Katie and her eight cousins thought Burnmouth was perfect. There were lily-of-the-valley-sprinkled woods to hide in, the great sloping lawn to roll down like a sausage, the enormous oak tree to swing from, the vegetable garden to pull up radishes and carrots, the formal garden to pick bouquets for play weddings, and the beach where the cousins established their Pretend City.
According to Andy, Katie’s story is a mid-century microcosm:
“The novel begins when Katie is 15-year-old party girl: a bug on a leaf she had no sense of what the rest of the tree was up to, with the furniture of her life still in place. She becomes more serious as she grows up and experiences great loss, often taking solace in books. It takes her through protests of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and lessening of norms the family held dear.”
Andy explained how she moves from inspiration to print:
“I get an idea from my life, or from the people I know well, and I daydream it. If I really like it, a movie will start in my head. As I write, I follow this movie and write down what happens. Often the movie is a memory that goes off on its own. Later, I sometimes can’t remember what is memory and what I made up.
“Often the characters start out as people I know and then they get away from me and go off on their own. Sometimes I make them up from scratch.
“I stay away from all writing classes. I don’t want anyone telling me how to write. I don’t want what is going on in my head to be interrupted. Towards the end, though, I appreciate 2-3 good readers who look at the manuscript and say things like ‘this is boring, this is good.’
“I read a lot and I listen a lot.”
Classic Chicago asked Andy if we could excerpt a few passages from her book that convey the iconic beauty of Bar Harbor. The following passage tells its story:
People liked to say that the Club had “peaked in 1911,” when a band played every day at noon, but now in 1950 it would be hard to think of the present generations as deprived.
It was sunny and beautiful the day after the garden party, so the McAllisters ate lunch on the Club lawn. The snapping of the flag, the ringing of its rigging against the pole, and the shrieks of splashing children surrounded Granny as she sat at a round iron table under an umbrella, isolated in spite of her hearing aids.
Even at home the McAllisters always “changed for dinner” which was different from “dressing for dinner.” It just meant they put on something nicer than sweaty shorts or dungarees. First a nice hot bath. “Nothing,” remarked Granny McAllister frequently, “like a nice hot bath.” Then cocktails. “As soon as the sun has crossed the yardarm.” Whatever that meant. If everyone was home, and if “it” was nice, all ages congregated in the brown wicker chairs with the faded linen cushions on the veranda. The veranda was hung with drooping fuchsia plants and overlooked the lawn, the beach, and the bay. “Isn’t it a lovely evening,” someone always said.
Fellow author and friend Brigitte Treumann, who has read the book twice with enthusiasm, shared her impressions:
“The Bar Harbour Formation cast its spell on me. I began the book one afternoon and stayed up all night reading. First impressions: azing at Winslow Homer paintings, catching a glimpse of Edith Wharton, or John Cheever. But above all it’s reading Ann (Andy) Rutherfurd Austin, a very fine ‘Bildungsroman,’ depicting growing-up in the fifties and beyond, summering in Maine, a long-gone atmosphere of a spreading mansion, a matriarch regime, sailing close to the wind on the icy and wild Atlantic, old-fashioned flirtations with boys in seersucker suits, and long evenings illuminated by gorgeous sunsets and blue moons while sipping gins-and-tonic (which reminded me of my favorite scene in Gone With the Wind of Scarlett and the Tarleton Twins on the porch of Tara sipping mint juleps).
“This will be a great success, I think: it’s moving in so many ways, wistful, joyful, a bit melancholy here and there, as it should be, and reflecting a life full of sad and mad moments.”
In the cold of Chicago winter, we all deserve to be transported to a Bar Harbor summer.