Readers Do Care a Hill of Beans About Carolyn Chute's Fictional World of Egypt, Maine
What finally emerged from these elusive depths was a first novel that has usually-subdued reviewers tripping over each other to compare Chute to William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell and Alice Walker. The Beans of Egypt, Maine (Ticknor & Fields, $15.95) has just gone into its fifth hardcover printing three months after publication. It has also placed the author, a formerly impoverished 37-year-old grandmother, in a new kind of trance. With her earnings from the book, she has paid off 10 years of debts. A high school dropout, she has also—for the first time—read a book by William Faulkner, just to see what all the fuss is about.
Like Faulkner's Snopes family, Chute's characters, the Beans, are down-and-outers who rant against the unseen forces behind their squalor. Chute picked the name Bean, as generic in Maine as Doe in America, to speak for her idea of the struggling Everyman. Roberta Bean, the tall earth mother, sells vegetables by the roadside while her countless, seemingly fatherless, children clamor around her feet. One day Beal, the crater-faced, stuttering Bean, goes berserk.
The eccentric, scruffy Beans had been lingering on the edge of Chute's imagination for many years. Then in 1980, Carolyn, who had been writing short stories since the age of 8, sat down and created her fictional corner of the world: Egypt. "I drew a map of it—a little trailer home, the right-of-way, a big barn across the street and then the house," she remembers. After Carolyn had been writing for three years, a writer friend offered to refer her novel to his New York agent. He lent Chute the $10 necessary to cover mailing costs. Ticknor & Fields eventually saw it and grabbed it. The $7,000 advance Chute received for the book was $5,000 more than her total income for the previous year. Soon after that shock, the University of Southern Maine in Portland offered her $2,000 to teach a semester course in fiction writing.
Chute's Down East destiny never meant to hand her carefree times. The eldest of three children born to an electrical-parts salesman (Joseph Penny) and his wife, Carolyn has difficulty remembering anything that distinguished her "boring, sheltered" childhood spent in a GI housing development in nearby Cape Elizabeth. At 16, she met and married a fellow student, Jimmy Hawkes, who shared her disdain for school. Carolyn dropped out, but returned, at 20, to night school. Jimmy became a factory worker to support their daughter, Joannah, born a year later. When she was 7 they divorced. "We just didn't have nothing in common," Carolyn says simply. With her ex-husband providing the scant child support he could, she took on a variety of low-paying jobs, from plucking chickens to being a charwoman.
In 1976 she painted a rough portrait on canvas for her mother of what she considered to be her ideal man. She was specific down to the color of his eyes, the cut of his beard and the type of flannel shirts she wanted him to wear. He would be gentle, a mountain man of sorts. That fall she set out to find him. At a turkey shoot in neighboring Sebago, Maine, there he was. They never spoke, but Carolyn took pictures, showed them to family and friends and claimed she had found her man.
On New Year's Eve at a local bar, Carolyn again ran into her tall woodsman. After a few dances, Michael Chute, illiterate and eight years younger than Carolyn, took her out to see the stars. By May, ascetic, silent Michael and robust Carolyn were married. Their odd, serenely happy union has been marred only by the death of their one child, Reuben, three years ago. The Chutes blame the tragedy on the inadequate prenatal care and medical attention they say is accorded the poor. "In the beginning Michael hadn't wanted kids," Carolyn recalls. "He was afraid a child wouldn't look up to him because he couldn't read."
Both parents were devastated. Carolyn dedicated her book, a gift of love, to their son:
In Memory of real Reuben
Who spared him this occasion?
Who spared him rage?
Living off food stamps, soup provided by local charities and what Michael could bring in from odd jobs, Carolyn pressed to finish her novel.
Quarters were tight when her daughter, son-in-law and 18-month-old grandson, Brandon, temporarily moved into the Chutes' three-room house because they couldn't afford to pay their own rent.
Since the publication of the book, life, outwardly at least, hasn't changed too much. The Chutes still chop the wood, feed the geese, Omar and Olive, and drive around in their two trucks, one of which displays a large, unevenly painted sign offering Michael's plowing and woodcutting talents. The bathroom toilet still doesn't work, so the Chutes cope with an old-fashioned flush: a bucket of water.
Now the success of The Beans has lifted their spirits. Michael dreams of enough money to buy some land in Parsons Field, build a house and start a junkyard. Carolyn, working on her second novel, set, as it happens, in a junkyard, transmits a new confidence to her college students. "Go for the special," she advises them, leaning forward with excitement. "Go for the fresh and new." That is the charm of the Beans—and the Chutes—of rural Maine.
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