Jane E. Hartman,
Hatchet Harbor: A
Maine Coast Adventure

(Aquarian Systems, 1999)

I read for fun, quickly, and copiously, so I read a lot of books that aren't especially good. I hate to abandon a book midway through, though -- there's always the chance that it'll come together or grow on me (and this has in fact occasionally happened). I've therefore come up with some ways to make reading interesting when the book itself doesn't hold me. My favorite is to analyze what's going wrong, and how it might be corrected; there have been books I've mentally rewritten completely as I read them.

This is a very boring book. It didn't need to be. I like coastal Maine; I have environmental interests; we're hoping to move someplace more rural so the interactions of the locals with immigrants from Outside, and how these two groups balance their interests and try to work out common ground is very interesting to me. Hatchet Harbor combines these elements, adds some exotic travel, a lot of sexual goings-on, and the dissolution and reformation of couples ... and creates tedium.

One of the easiest mistakes a fiction author can make is to tell the reader too much; it's always better to develop character by showing the people in action or in dialogue with each other. Hartman does this as little as possible, writing even scenes that begged to be conveyed as action or dialogue as page after page of authorly exposition. While a certain amount of exposition may be required in a science fiction novel or a mystery, when the plot depends on specialized knowledge that the reader cannot reasonably be expected to know automatically, skilled authors hide even these lectures within actions or dialogue -- demonstrations of the knowledge in practice are usually best, but sometimes they must rely on one character lecturing or teaching another. In other forms of fiction, or when discussing obvious knowledge (the woods are pretty) or normal human interactions (people get jealous), long exposition by the author is a sign that either the author was too lazy to translate character notes into plot, or that she has no trust in the reader to draw the desired conclusion from anything more subtle than telling us what to think. It is very boring indeed to be lectured for 190 pages.

It's even more pointless when the characters don't seem to have any "there there." With so much attention paid to the rambling thoughts of the characters, one would think that they'd at least come alive as individuals. They don't. If one removes circumstantial clues that could identify the speaker, I defy anyone to correctly differentiate between one and another. They all think using the same language, the same turns of phrase -- even the same superficial emotions. While we are sometimes told that a character is agonizing, it doesn't show. We're just informed that it's the case.

I'll allow that there is one character who we might be able to identify from his mental voice alone. That's Bucky, the one local native who has a point of view in the novel, and who Hartman depicts as venal, lecherous, greedy and physically repulsive -- and still boring. She describes the other local natives as quite similar -- not a likeable character among them. While the "from-aways" (I'm not sure this is the proper Down East term; I'm more familiar with the "flatlander" term used by our New Hampshire friends to describe us Massachusetts types) are not all admirable, the lack of any reasonable local native character smacks of an intense snobbery and obliviousness to the difficult situations the natives are in. Ab, the hero, does something to span the gap; he was born there and educated outside, but he seems to have gone over totally to the from-away attitudes rather than bridging the gap. Hartman leaves unnoticed the hypocrisy inherent in the situations of the from-aways, who move in, snap up scenic and visible locations from the impoverished natives, build huge and visible houses thereon ... and then start to deplore development and building.

I also noticed that Hartman uses being overweight as an invariable symbol of moral decay. Not all the thin characters are role models -- but all the fatter characters are corrupt, and their weights are described in a tone of salacious disgust. One wonders why....

I was also disturbed by the scene of a boy trying to rape his little sister. Not so much by the scene in itself, actually, but by its context. Writing about it here doesn't constitute a spoiler, since it's completely irrelevant to the plot; apart from that scene, the two kids only appear peripherally. This attempted rape was witnessed by one of the more supposedly sympathetic characters, who did break it up, but who did nothing more about it including telling the kids' parents. We are told she agonized about it. This agonizing does not develop her character, and as far as I can tell the scene was included only as a way of illustrating their (plump) mother's immorality in having lovers when her husband was ignoring her. Hartman drew this connection repeatedly and explicitly, but I still found it weak. I think there was no reason for this scene in the context of the book. The supposed character illustration could have been handled far more effectively and plausibly by a variety of other means -- and, once included, it was brushed off as trivial. While this incident was the most disturbing example, a number of other incidents occurred of a similarly serious nature that were then trivialized, and not in ways plausible to the plot or to human nature. I suppose these incidents are why the subtitle includes the word "adventure;" there's certainly no other reason for it. The overarching plot is a romance, if you can call the gradual and predictable approach of two ciphers romantic.

I know this is harsh. Hartman is not a first-time author; her biographical notes tell us she has fourteen books to her credit. I am amazed that someone who has experience in writing -- who has had books accepted and published -- manages to ignore the basic rules of fiction writing so thoroughly. I am also amazed that for a writer whose work consists almost entirely of the introspections of the characters, Hartman has managed to make those thoughts as shallow as she did, and to herself express such an unexamined wealth of prejudice and snobbery.

If you're interested in the Maine woods, read anything by Bernard Heinrich, especially A Year in the Maine Woods or Trees in my Forest. For an entertaining look at coastal Maine, find The Baked Bean Supper Murders by Virginia Rich -- not only a fun read, but with some excellent recipes. I'm sure there are many more possibilities -- but Hatchet Harbor is not one of them.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]

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