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Writing on Stone
Scenes from a Maine Island Life
Christina Marsden Gillis; Peter Ralston, Photo.; Philip W. Conkling, fwd.

2008 • 184 pp. 8 color illus. 6 x 9"

$19.95 Hardcover, 978-1-58465-697-5

Published in association with Island Institute, Rockland, Maine

Writing on Stone offers resonant pictures of a remarkable community. Peter Ralston's photographs add color intervals to the narrative, and his colleague Philip Conkling's citation from Goethe about the shock of recognition sets the stage for the memoir that follows. ”—Working Waterfront

A moving personal account of how the life of an island, past and present, shapes and transforms the unexpected loss of a son

Located off the southwest coast of Mount Desert Island in Maine, Gotts Island, a mile across and three miles round, is ringed with bright granite—a “rock bound belt” that suggests concreteness, independence, and separation from the sea around it. But no island, no place, ever stands alone and unchanging. The small, close-knit community established on Gotts Island in the late eighteenth century disappeared in the twentieth, leaving behind mere traces, names on the cemetery stones. In its wake came the summer people, returning year after year, with “bags, bundles, and memory.”

Having purchased the house of poet and writer Ruth Moore in 1965, Christina Gillis has been a summer resident of Gotts Island for more than forty years. Each summer she and her husband, John, arrive with their books, projects, and lives. On the island they watched their young sons, Chris and Ben, turn from “two small blond boys in high-top overalls” to “shirtless adolescents” and finally to young men.

But the place that was a constant center in their lives, that nourished them and their friendships with visitors and neighbors, assumed a more profound significance for the Gillis family in 1992 when they buried the ashes of their son Ben in the island cemetery. Ben had been killed seven months earlier while flying a small plane in Kenya. In the cemetery overlooking the sea, once the heart of the village and still central to the community, he joined generations of earlier islanders to become a “name in stone.”

In this elegant and gentle memoir of place and experience, the author takes the reader on a tour of the island, making connections between its stark physical beauty, its known and unknown places, and the decades of memories and myths it encompasses. Gillis describes the social role of the dock, the portal for arrivals and departures that are so important to island life; she traverses
the pathways that cross the Island, offering up its topographical intricacies and secrets; and she revisits the cemetery that, though bounded by its fence, shares a field with the annual Fourth of July softball game. A location of loss is also a place of life.

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Reviews / Endorsements

“...Gillis' poignant and melancholy memoir of 40 summers spent with her family on Gotts Island, living in the house once owned by poet and writer Ruth Moore...reflects that influence of dark mood and damp atmosphere, with emotion and thoughtful reflection.”—Kennebec Journal

“Gillis's range of reference is broad and engaging. She will bring in the Cuban artist Ana Mendieta or Virginia Wolff or that famous island couple, the Kellams, from nearby Placentia Island, to highlight a point about island life. She also sketches portraits of islanders: Russie Gott, Lyle and Vee Reed, Norma Stanley, Uncle Mont. Locals and summer people end up sharing a lot, from solitude to the solace of memories of better days. Writing on Stone offers resonant pictures of a remarkable community. Peter Ralston's photographs add color intervals to the narrative, and his colleague Philip Conkling's citation from Goethe about the shock of recognition sets the stage for the memoir that follows. ‘The island is a gathering,’ Gillis writes. ‘It is a site for undertaking the archaeology of memory. It is the perfect medium.’ The author knows whereof she speaks.”—Working Waterfront

"If you leave a copy on your visitors' bedside table, better buy another because it will disappear when they leave." —Lincoln County News (Damariscotta, Maine

“Haunting and haunted, this beautiful memoir of a family summer house on an island in Maine explores an intricate geography of love and loss with lyrical precision. In grave and eloquent sentences, Christina Gillis traces the boundaries between the dead and the living, between grief and survival, seeking to fill in the empty spaces of communal as well as familial history. "We do not simply dwell in the islanded summer house," writes Gillis. "We also imagine. We dream." And so will the enthralled readers of Writing on Stone.”—Sandra M. Gilbert, author of Death's Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve

“Memory is the needle and story the thread sewing together these histories of a family and a place into a picture of how the particular is shaped and what it means to belong to a particular place. In an era where place itself seems to be dissolving into a homogenous zone of windowless limbos, the descriptions of the characters, rites, and territory of Great Gott's Island is a reminder of what some of us pine for, some of us maintain, and all of us could rediscover through this lovely little book.”—Rebecca Solnit, author of Hope in the Dark and A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Author Photo

Trained in eighteenth-century English literature, CHRISTINA MARSDEN GILLIS became for sixteen years Associate Director of the Townsend Center for the Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley, where she organized programs on humanities advocacy, social suffering, and intersections between the humanities and medicine.

Wed, 17 Oct 2018 11:33:13 -0500