Gayle Lynds: Barbara Ross’s novels always move me. They’re riveting! In her newest one, Muddled Through, modernization sends residents of a Maine resort into turmoil. Add valuable pottery, town meetings, and unfortunate death, and you have adventure, a retired National Geographic female photographer, and Miss Rumphius. Barb’s books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction.
Is it a Maine town meeting, or a crapstorm?
Hi Rogues! It is a pleasure to be here. Thanks to my friend and fellow Mainer, Gayle Lynds, for inviting me.
I’ve set each of my Maine Clambake Mysteries in a particular season in Maine, centering the books around an aspect of Maine’s ecology or economy that I wanted to learn more about. In the series there have been books about clamming and lobstering, oyster and blueberry farming. There has also been a book about the history of the ice industry, and one explored Maine’s unusual shoreline property rights (which go back to a Colonial Ordinance from 1640).
The tenth book, Muddled Through, is about the art and commerce of pottery and about friction caused by development in a resort area that must retain its uniqueness, yet also offer the kind of hospitality current tourists demand. It is also about the New England town meeting, an institution some call the purist form of democracy on earth, others call a total crapstorm, and it is frequently both.
I based one of the characters in Muddled Through, Alice Rumsford, on the protagonist in Barbara Cooney’s brilliant children’s book Miss Rumphius. In the book, Alice Rumphius tells her grandfather that when she grows up, she will go to faraway places, and when she gets old, she will live in a house by the sea. Her grandfather tells her she must do one additional thing. She must do something to make the world more beautiful.
Award Winning Author Barbara Ross
Alice does go to faraway places, an intrepid single woman traveling around the earth. When her back gives out while getting off a camel, she goes back to Maine to live in a house by the sea. Once she recovers, she makes the world more beautiful by dropping lupine seeds everywhere she goes. (We can debate the merits of making the world more beautiful by seeding an invasive species at some other time. Suffice to say, Mainers and tourists alike love the lupines.)
My Alice Rumsford follows Miss Rumphius’s path. She goes to many faraway places. When she gets old, she lives in a house by the sea in my fictional town of Busman’s Harbor. But why and how does my contemporary Alice travel the world? I decided my Alice would be a photographer for National Geographic magazine.
That led me to two wonderful books. Women Photographers at National Geographic (National Geographic, Sept. 2000), and Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment (National Geographic, March 2014). I was inspired by the beautiful photographs and the fascinating essays in these books.
To be a female photographer at National Geographic was a rare thing indeed. When Women Photographers was written in 2000, there had been from the beginning, about fifty men on the photography staff and four women, their tenures widely spaced. What women there were from 1907 onward, were almost always freelancers. They competed with men, they got roughed up on the street, and there were places they could not go.
But there were also places they could go, uniquely. The freelance nature of the work allowed women to pick their assignments and their deadlines. Many devoted years to sitting quietly in women’s quarters, listening and respecting despite language barriers. As trust bloomed, these female photographers were allowed to take pictures of the women, their rituals, and the thing most precious to them—their children.
To be sure, in these two books, there are breathtaking photographs of landscapes and heart-stopping images of animals in the wild. But it was the photographs of children and young people in societies all over the world that moved me the most. I gave those photos, and bits of their stories to Alice Rumsford.
Dear Rogue Readers: What is a subject you’ve been meaning to learn more about? Would it make a good novel? What would the title be?