Of Sea and Clouds
By Jon Keller
Tyrus Books, 2014
Hardcover, 336 pp., $24.99
Maine’s lobster fishery is apparently fertile ground for novelists. Not so long ago, I reviewed “Vacationland” by Nat Goodale, which was an enjoyable read. “Of Sea and Cloud” by Jon Keller, also set in the Pine Tree State’s most profitable fishery, is a darker ride, but no less of a page-turner.
Things get ugly in a hurry. Nicholas Graves has raised his sons, Bill and Joshua (known as Jonah), to be lobstermen. But when Nicholas is lost at sea, the mystery of his death sparks a chain of events resulting in a war between the Graves boys and Osmond Randolph, a lobsterman and former Calvinist minister, as well as their father’s business partner for more than 20 years.
With Nicholas out of the picture, the powerful and unsettling Osmond, aided by his grandson and heir, Julius (a deeply unsettling guy in his own right), moves to push the Graves family out of the lobster pound Nicholas and Osmond ran at any cost. A trap war develops as Osmond sets lobster traps on the Graves family grounds mere days after Nicholas is lost at sea.
Jonah cuts about $5,000-worth of Osmond’s traps. In retaliation, Julius sets his gear directly on top of the Graves’ traps. And as the Graves try to figure out what happened to their father the war escalates from there.
But the story isn’t solely about an ugly trap war. Keller worked aboard a Down-East Maine lobster boat for several years after graduate school, and during that time, he said in a Tyrus Books interview, he “began to see within the land and people something nearing on the epic.”
“When I started writing ‘Of Sea and Cloud,’ I fell immediately into a voice that felt to me to echo this epic starkness — and more importantly than echoing, I hoped that the voice would resonate in and through the novel in the way the coastal landscape resonates in and through the Down-East world,” he explained.
Keller said he he’s lived in enough small towns to be aware of when a place is undergoing a serious shift.
“I’d call it a cultural unraveling, perhaps, and it results in loneliness and desperation that I hoped to capture in the book,” he said. “It’s the confusion that results when a sub-culture doesn’t evolve as quickly as the culture that surrounds it. The technology has changed, the standards of living have changed, the world has changed… yet the way of life has not, and the result is a cultural tailspin, a potential breakdown.”
Furthermore, Keller said the region’s isolation doesn’t protect it from a changing world as much as it exposes it. In the book, Osmond sees that global markets are going to affect the lobster industry and the aging lobsterman is desperate to protect his family and ensure that they will survive those changes.
Keller says “Of Sea and Cloud” is “a book that asks something of the reader, just as the coast of Maine asks something of those who inhabit it.” It’s a story that should be food for thought for 21st century fishermen, be they veteran harvesters or young bucks trying to make their mark on this historic industry.