Carolyn Chute’s return address includes the postscript, “No Fax/No Phone/No Paved Road.” The self-taught novelist of Maine’s backwoods can add “No More Good Reviews,” for with her latest book, Snow Man, she has committed an unpardonable act of literary patriotism: She depicts a militiaman as a human being.
We came to Chute’s Parsonsfield from Concord, Massachusetts, where our daughter plunked imaginary redcoats on the rude bridge that arched the flood. (Two hundred years ago. New England had use of militiamen.) We were borne, not on the night wind of the past, but on the ribboned highways of the present. The McDonald’s we passed in Westbrook was selling a Lobster Value Meal—who says there’s no place for regional cuisine under global capitalism?—but not for nothing has Maine been relegated to the far corner of the country: Vandals keep throwing rocks through the window of the Starbucks in Portland. Some people just have no respect for private property.
The German and Swedish cars that hum along the Maine coast give way, the further inland one goes, to pickups, until our green Lumina starts to look suspiciously hoity-toity. Carolyn’s hand-drawn map, with such landmarks as “Big old place” and “old trees,” is a cartographic masterpiece, as for once we make no wrong turns.
We find her dirt road near the Maine-New Hampshire border. She has posted a speed limit of 3.5 miles per hour on the rutted path that leads to the wooden frame home, set amid 17 hilly wooded acres, that the 1985 best-seller The Beans of Egypt Maine, bought for Carolyn and her husband, Michael.
Michael greets us at the door, standing at attention, cradling a reproduction Brown Bess. He is artillery commander of the Border Mountain Militia; our daughter thrills to the sight of this Revolutionary War ghost.
Michael has a ZZ Top-quality beard and a soft Maine drawl. He mows and tends the town’s gravesites, filled with the bones of his ancestors and relatives. His people have been here since 1830; “this town is all related to him,” says Carolyn. Michael is eight years younger than Carolyn, but she calls him “Pa.” She first saw him at a turkey shoot in Sebago. He cannot read, so she reads her work aloud to him. This is natural: “Home is work in common,” Carolyn says. “Home is life in common.”
There is a dreary sub-genre of regional writing by professorettes who move to college towns and see the hirsute and saggy locals lolloping along Main Street and crank out novels in which they imagine the squalid lives of loutish husbands and victimized wives and feral children, one of whom may score well on the SATs and escape Boggy Creek for the faculty lounge. Carolyn Chute is not one of those. She is the real thing: a Maine girl who married a Maine boy and would no more betray Maine than she would turn over her guns to the Proper Authorities.
Carolyn is an inveterate scrawler and sign-maker: Tables and walls and the refrigerator are blazoned with such messages as “School Stinks” and “Neo-Isolationist and Proud of It.” Draped over the Stars and Stripes is the Border Mountain Militia flag, designed by Carolyn and bearing the image of the Abominable Hairy Patriot. (“The Indians believed that in terrible times, a big hairy guy would come and warn the people.”) She rocks steadily, laughs readily; we sit in the chairs usually occupied by her four Scottish terriers.
Carolyn was raised in Cape Elizabeth, on the coast, before “the professional people came in and it got built up.” She uses “professional people” as a pejorative, for the invaders inevitably corrupt “what I like about small towns: You had a relationship.”
“Even the person in town you don’t get along with, you hate, you always wave to him,” interjects Michael. “You might be stuck in a snowbank sometime, and he’ll pull you out.”
No one is going to pull Carolyn out of the critical hole which Snow Man, her fourth novel, has dug her. She is buried under enough scorn and obloquy to suffocate a weaker woman. And all because she loves her neighbors and her country.
Snow Man follows Robert Drummond, a hairy and occasionally abominable patriot, a Maine militiaman who is between assassinations, as it were: he has just executed one U.S. senator from Massachusetts and would be drawing a bead on the other were it not for the gunshot wound to his shoulder administered by Boston police. Robert is taken in by a sympathetic handyman on the estate of his intended second target, Sen. Jerry Creighton, who is known as “the Liberal, which means he works hard for the rights of blacks and gays and women and foreigners who have graduated from Harvard . . . or Yale . . . and he works hard for the rights of Big Business, as does the rest of Congress.”
Robert will be nursed, in ways medical and otherwise, by Creighton’s daughter, an “angry, rivalrous ultra-feminist,” and his Beacon Hill wife. The novel is about “what happens when the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ come together, heart to heart,” writes Chute, who dedicates it to, among others, Noam Chomsky and the 2nd Maine and Border Mountain militias.
Chute opens Snow Man with a brief scene that rings so true you half expect the novel to be interrupted while the author is issued a citation for having a Hate Thought. In a Boston barroom decidedly not that presided over by Ted Danson, cheers go up as the first senator’s assassination is reported on TV. “Get ’em all!” is the general sentiment, though one patron cautions the celebrants to “Watch out. I heard of a guy who was arrested and put away for saying that kinda thing. An’ he was just a poor old retarded guy almost eighty years old.”
“This is America. I speak mv mind,” replies one bold patron. To which Chute appends, “In barrooms and living rooms and dooryards and workplaces all over America, people discuss the senator’s demise, followed by awkward discussions of the dangers of speaking one’s mind.” It is a lesson that Carolyn Chute, heretofore a critics’ darling, is learning with a vengeance.
“With all my other books I got jillions of interviews,” she says. But with Snow Man, published in May, “they won’t interview me. And I don’t think it’s that much more poorly written.” The folks at Harcourt Brace tell her it’s “controversial,” to which she replies, “It can’t be controversial if it’s blacked out!”
Snow Man‘s assumption that militias are not splatball clubs for homicidal rural losers but rather indigenous expressions of hearty patriotism has, perhaps, kept Michiko Kakutani from embracing the novel. But Chute’s disparagement of corporate ladder feminism is what really seems to irk reviewers. The flunky in the New York Times singled out the passage in which Drummond explodes, “the big-boy f— in the White House and his arrogant bitch broad femmie-Ms. wifey and the banker boys eat my Constitution for breakfast and tell me I can’t have a gun because I might f—‘ use it.”
We are not in Bobbie Ann Mason country.
“Liberals hate working-class white men, especially those who don’t do dishes and who whistle at women,” wrote Chute in an essay censored by the Nation in the wake of the Littleton shooting. (Never mind that the dynamite duo were spoiled suburban brats.) Carolyn Chute loves working-class men, and she believes this forbidden love is one reason the worms of the critical world have turned on her. Feminist reviewers “don’t like bedroom scenes when women are having a nice time. They want them to be beaten in the head, then finally escape at the end from brutal guys. [Robert’s] not brutal, he’s just . . . a guy. He’s sweet.”
Outlets that routinely praise novels featuring every sort of depravity, from mutilation to a fling with a barnyard cutie, have taken after Snow Man, whose adultery scenes might aggravate the Legion of Decency but hardly qualify as “pornographic,” as Publishers Weekly had it. (PW also found the book “alarming in tone.”)
My theory of why reviewers hate Snow Man is this: In Chute’s previous novels, her Beans and LeTourneaus kept to their own trailers, their own hamlets. In Snow Man, one of Chute’s hairy Maine men has escaped—and he’s in their neighborhood, waving a gun, messing with their women. Call the police!
Snow Man is filled with angrily sardonic observations on the chasm that separates corporate women from their working-class sisters. When Robert rues that his wife, Cindy, had to get a job to pay his mother’s nursing home bills—the Drummonds “couldn’t take care of her anymore. Too busy chasin’ the dollar”—the senator’s wife replies, “Well, that’s wonderful. . . . A woman needs a career as much as a man does.”
Robert explains that, as a housewife, Cindy had been a canner and gardener and knitter and photographer and baker and blueberry picker; as a career gal, she was a slatherer of ketchup on strangers’ Quarter Pounders at McDonald’s. Excellent discipline for a budding cog in the global economy, but the senator’s wife, not being a conservative journalist, gets the point.
Chute has worked for even lower wages than a McDonald’s hand—she was a charwoman and potato-picker before The Beans of Egypt, Maine—but it is the grey flannel blouse jobs that she most despises. The “establishment feminists,” she tells me, “think we should all be head of a corporation or Ann Richards—the killingest governor—that’s where women belong. Nobody belongs there!“
Chute signaled a turn toward the political when she dedicated her third novel, Merry Men (1994), not only to farmers (“America’s last vestiges of freedom”) but also, less conventionally, to “all those millions who were born to be farmers, as they have been for thousands of years, but because of modern ‘education,’ Big Business, and Mechanization they cannot be and will never know their true gift but are instead herded into welfare lines, prisons, or the slavery of Big Business.”
This is the plight of her people, and it has driven her to a rural radicalism that is as American as Shays’ Rebellion. “Is it really virtuous to lie down in peace when your people are being assaulted, heart, body, and soul?” asks the senator’s comprehending wife in Snow Man.
I ask Carolyn if assassination is justifiable at this stage of the American descent. “It’s not nice,” she replies. “Oppression is not nice. Revolution is not nice. But revolution is a reflex to oppression. It’s natural. If somebody doesn’t like assassination and revolution, they should speak to God and Mother Nature.” And Mother Nature, Chute adds, “ain’t no sweet mincing little beauty queen.”
And yet, in the end, she writes of Love, of the would-be murderer whose hand is stilled by “that suffusion of empathy which some call God, some call weakness.” She closes Snow Man with Geronimo’s chilling plaint: “I think I am a good man, but . . . all over the world they say I am a bad man.”
“That applied not only to Robert but also to the senators,” she explains. “Many of us think of them as bad people. They’re not—the system makes monsters out of people.”
Her revolutionary model is the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico, but Chute need not look far for an expression of dirt-road patriotic resistance that is every bit as authentic, if not more so: for she is the cofounder and indefatigable secretary of the 2nd Maine Militia (450 members) and a stalwart of the smaller localized Border Mountain Militia.
If a rat deserts a sinking ship, what do we call those brave souls who climb aboard and start bailing? Carolyn started the 2nd Maine after the Oklahoma City bombing, when “it started to look bad for militias. I wanted to give them a good name. I thought this was really cool, there was a lot of potential, and I wanna make sure this doesn’t die. Don’t hide: They’re all shy, these were the people who sat in the corner in school. Get out and be proud, fly your flag.”
So Carolyn and an activist from the leftist Labor Party organized the 2nd Maine Militia. Their early meetings were a true rainbow coalition. There were “guys in camo, hippies, bikers, old ladies. Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Marxists, Libertarians, John Birchers: It was so cute!” says Carolyn with delight.
What do they have in common? “They’re all trying to make sense of this. You talk to them, and they all sound sort of similar: The only thing that seems different is the information they’re getting.” Much of that information now comes from Carolyn, who as secretary fills the mailboxes of her comrades with articles from the Nation, Shooting Times, and other publications ranging from mainstream to the sort of samizdat that would hurl J. Edgar Reno into a tizzy.
Among the 2nd Maine’s first projects was a raid on the Maine statehouse. One hundred and fifty militia men and women converged in Augusta. “We’re screaming ‘We the People! We the People!'” recalls Carolyn. “It was so cool.”
Alas, a few Earth First! monkeywrenchers showed up and taped a sign reading “Augusta: Capital of Corporate Terrorism” over the portrait of former Governor and Union Army hero Joshua Chamberlain, thus scotching any chance of being idealized in a Ken Burns documentary.
The 2nd Maine got a bit too big for Carolyn’s taste: “My idea was have it be tribal: Different people start their own militias all over the place and then we get together to do a big thing. Like in the Revolutionary War. People can develop their own style, their own neighborhood. People don’t want large organizations —they won’t go, especially the country people don’t wanna sit under fluorescent lights and eat healthy snacks and raise money for petition drives.”
Even in militias, she found, the articulate—”the professional class—would dominate. The conservative [which she uses as a synonym for working-class] guys want to come and shoot their guns and while they shoot they talk. They stop, they talk, they shoot: They’re doing something. If they get a moment where they don’t want to talk they shoot. It’s not like they’re sitting there staring at each other waiting to have this . . . thing.”
The 2nd Maine and Border Mountain militias are nothing like the yokelish death squads that haunt the condominium dreams of Morris Dees and Hollywood scenarists. Michael Chute calls the Border Mountain “the militia of love.” It marries the rural gun and shooting culture with the best of the dovour-own-thing hippie ethos. It proclaims itself “no-wing,” for as Carolyn writes, “It is my deepest wish that the left, right, and all in between stop pointing horizontally when they say ‘enemy’ but look up at that faceless elite.”
No-wing militias “are not right-wing and we are not Socialists . . . [W]e do not want Centralized Power of any kind. We do not want a GIANT THING that industrializes people or treats them as a mass. We like having a BIG Constitution. But more local economies, regional, flexible, human.”
The Chutes are not theocrats or racial separatists; Michael and Carolyn are organizing a multi-militia gathering in Maine next summer to protest the drug war, no-knock searches, and the “undeclared martial law being practiced on our urban brothers and sisters.” She dreams of a coalition between rural whites and urban blacks: After all, the drug war has filled the prisons with the latter, and the coming gnu-control war will introduce farm boys to this emerging growth industry.
“The government is going to try to take away our guns,” she predicts, and “All of us naughty INDEPENDENT Yankees will thumb our noses at this. So now we’ll be prime prison material . . . I personally promise that if someone comes to bother me about my guns, I SHALL bite ’em in the ankle and rip off at least one ear and curse their tribe for twenty and one centuries.”
Gun control hits all her buttons; it opens the Chute, you might say (if only her name were not pronounced “Choot”), as placelcss yuppies and the regime they serve seek to strip rural people of a traditional American right. Michael and Carolyn have lived with guns all their lives: She remembers, “Mv sixthgrade teacher used to let the kids bring their hunting rifles to school and lean them against the wall. My husband bought a really good shotgun from a kid in the hall at Sacopee Valley High. I used to carry a huge hunting knife and unopened pack of cigarettes in my pocketbook. I never intended to use either one, but I’m the kind of gal who if you tell me I shouldn’t do a thing, I shall do it (unless it is a cruel thing). If I were a young kid in high school today, I would have an unsmoked joint and a gun in my purse, because you tell mc I can’t. I would be searched, then handed over to the police.”
It is among Carolyn’s greatest insights that the conflict between “the professional people” and the natives in Maine mirrors that between indigenous people and rich outsiders elsewhere in the world. The roofless espresso-addled consumers masquerading as the left in America get misty-eyed over foreign peasants fighting the big landowners and multinationals, but they hate and fear the American working class and peasantry, especially when Jethro has a gun. Part of this owes to the uppermiddle-class upbringing of the Java Left}’: Everything he knows about life in the wilds outside Scarsdale he learned on TV; viz., that people who never went to college are ponytailed wife-beaters who lynch uppity blacks. The old missionary impulse is also at work: Rigoberta Menchu is so much more tinglingly exotic than Robert Drummond.
To the mobile professional, the gun has become the symbol of the immobile redneck. It must be confiscated; he must be emasculated. ‘Yuppies moving into our town post their land, holler for more police and want everyone to mow their grass and spruce up to their tastes and you guessed it . . . no more gunfire,” writes Carolyn.
Her novels are about tribal loyalties; Chute is an encomiast of village life. Her politics, and those of her militias, are largely an outgrowth of this faith.
“We don’t see how dangerous the loss of small town life is,” Chute insists: “small biz, interdependence, the front porch, aunts and uncles who live next door, Grammies who live next door. We call these losses progress, or just a little trade-off for ‘success.’ NOBODY IS HOME! NOBODY IS EVEN IN TOWN!”
Yet “[i]n our blood and bones we remember real mothers, real fathers, real aunts and unks. We remember protection. Security. We remember being stroked, fondled, cherished, being the future of our tribes. We remember (more recently) friendly cops. Some of us remember before TV when the living room chairs faced each other. Further back, we remember the front porch. We remember when singing and stories were free. . . . And yuh, those songs and stories were about us and our families, our personal histories, in which our parents and unks and aunts were featured in heroic ways.”
Our job, she writes, is to recreate “a country made of thousands of small healthy & various communities + tribes.” This will not be done at the point of a gun. “Wc do not plan to shoot ANYBODY,” she scrawls in a militia recruiting poster. “We want everyone safe and happy. Everyone. Our guns are not for starting trouble. We only protect. We are not an Imperialist army. That is what the USA government military is for.”
Her militias do not propose to dismantle corporate privilege through Naderite regulation; rather, they demand, in best Jefferson-Jackson fashion, the revocation of corporate charters and a law that “no one person or corporation can own more than one newspaper or magazine.” This may run afoul of the First Amendment, though change that to “TV or radio station” and now we’re talking. But still, given that it is the bottom of the ninth and the home team is trailing by several dozen runs—maybe the game was over 50 years ago, but there are some things we are better off not knowing—desperate times call forth radical solutions. As these Loco Foco measures would effectively dismantle Microsoft, Disney, the New York Times, and Gannett, they will become “issues” when Peter Jennings anchors the coverage of the death of a 69-year-old diabetic janitor who loved his family but never dated Darryl Hannah.
At the end of Merry Men, Chute introduces a lady preacher, a Casy for the laid-off millworkers of Southern Maine, who gives a succinct formulation of the Chute program:
Our only hope . . . is interdependence. We need to start saying “no” to jobs with big business and their products . . . whenever there’s a choice. We need to rely on each other. We need to support each other. .. whatever’s left of your small businesses and farms, your tradesmen. To hell with buying American. Buy or trade with your neighbor! Buy from that face not the brand name! Do this whenever there’s a choice, even when it costs a little more. What price can we put on our freedom? . . . For thousands of years we grew our own food. In two or three generations those skills have been stripped from us. Schooling has done this. And we condoned it . . . this reverence for the white shirt, the desk, the clean hands, the books, the computers, the bucks, the conveniences, the “good job” somewhere else! How many survival skills do your children have? How many kids today can provide for themselves food, tools, clothing, warmth . . . Please, please, please, in the name of God, pass along any skills you have . . . any of the old skills . . . teach . . . your sons and daughters . . . whisper your secrets to your neighbor’s child!
The teaching will not be done in the schools, according to Carolyn, for the purpose of education is the creation of the Professional. When, in Snow Man, the senator’s wife asserts that “education” is the key to solving every problem under the sun, Robert retorts, “don’t gimme that’s—about education fixin’ this. We don’t wanna be yuppies. We can’t stand the sight of yuppies. The only education we want is to find out what the hell’s really goin’ on.”
Robert’s son “has a computer that the school pestered the parents to get. Some deal with a big company through the school. Since the computer arrived. Josh never does anything with Robert, never even looks at his father, because his face is always stuck to his computer.”
Carolyn believes the school is the enemy of the family. It is cold and vast. “Look at a small town,” she says. “How cozy people are. We look after each other—even those we don’t like. ‘He’s one of ours.’ New York City is big and impersonal—why would we take a school and turn it into New York City and think that’s an improvement?”
Michael adds, “They don’t teach faah-min.” (Pardon this lone lapse into dialectal transcription—the Chutes’ accents are so natural, so unaffected, so unlike the popsicle-stick-on-tongue “aaaah” of the cartoon New Englander.) “How to live off the land—they don’t teach those skills. They look down on faah-min.”
“If you can get people skill-less, they have to work in your I mill,” says Carolyn, who fingers the industrial revolution as the culprit. “Spend the whole day in school with a pen and paper whether you can do that kind of thing or not. We have all these people who can’t do an)’thing who would have been farmers. They’d be surviving. They can’t anymore: They’re living in slums, in trailer parks.
“They send a yellow bus to our doors and we gladly shove our children aboard. For many years, day in and day out, the Great Society whispers into each sweet perfect little childly ear . . . The Great Society begins at five years old. And notice how schools in no way resemble home. There are no grammies or dads, babies or dogs hanging around to lend or need a hand.”
Her sympathies are with the quiet boy in the back of the room, the mousy girl who gets straight G’s. Her imagination is rural, which is to say she understands how right it is for farmboys to trade shotguns in the halls, or girls to skip class to catch polliwogs. “Schools are treacherous places to us old Yankees,” she says.
Her solution? “We need to blow up the schools and throw all the TV’s into Boston Harbor. Wc do not want anybody in the schools when we blow them up. In fact, it would be rather nice if 80 percent of the population supported the effort. A great circle of people all holding hands will surround each brick fluorescent-lit school building. Songs of liberty will be sung. Flags will be waved. A cute 99-year-old retired schoolteacher will toss the first stick of dynamite.”
That is classic Chute: insurrection with a heart, revolution with wit. The militia of love.
Carolyn understands that her bridge to the land of well-fed sheep, of the New Yorker and the grant pasture, is forever burned. A decade ago, she was hailed as one of the freshest voices in American fiction. The Beans of Egypt, Maine sold 350,000 copies. Today, she imagines an interviewer asking, “Arc you going to give up writing if no one buys your books anymore?” To which she replies, “I will slowly starve and I will get very thin and weak and the power company will shut off my lights and still get weaker and weaker and weaker and die with a pencil in my hand in the dark. Unless I go to jail for having unregistered guns. There they will feed me and provide lights. But no pencil.”
She is “feather-dusting” her next novel, the militia epic The School on Heart’s Content Road. This sounds like her big novel, her Grapes of Wrath, but is a blackout ever lifted? “Once you’re gone, you can’t come back,” as a ragged fellow sang, though if Carolyn were willing to rat on her friends and write books justifying her perfidy she might eventually win the Elia Kazan Prize at the National Book Awards. But old Yankees do not squeal.
I ask her if she expects to die a martyr’s death. After all, in her first novel, Beal Bean is killed by police as he sprays gunfire into the windows of the new house yuppies are building across the way; in her latest, Robert Drummond . . . well, let’s just say Snow Man 2 is improbable. But a militia of love is no place for vainglorious fools who daydream of going out in a hail of bullets. She is, in the end, domestic, in the best sense: “I don’t wanna die in an old folks’ home. This is the death we always picture: the ideal death. We’re sitting here some evening, by candlelight, Michael and I, enjoying a nice evening chatting. The dogs are sitting in their chairs, and a meteor the same size as the house lands on the house, squashes it, and that way they can’t ever find out what a dirty housekeeper I am.”
To which Michael softly adds, “We look for that meteor every night.'”