Nelson Bryant grew up on Martha’s Vineyard, and from 1967 till 1998 he was the outdoors columnist for the New York Times. His tales of hunting, fishing, and general outdoor adventuring on the Vineyard and in many other places make this book worth reading for anyone interested in those subjects. So, too, do his often harrowing stories about his World War II service, and his anecdotes about his time as managing editor of New Hampshire’s Claremont Daily Eagle will ring many bells with anyone who’s ever worked in (relatively) small-town journalism. (That would include me.)
But for those who expect from memoir some insight into the writer’s life Mill Pond Joe (YBK Publishers, 2014; $18.95) may prove disappointing. The startling story that opens the book — Bryant’s six-year-old sister drowned when he was eleven, with him nearby — is only referred to a couple of times in the subsequent pages. Can you imagine such an incident not suffusing your life for decades afterward? I can’t either.
And in the background of all the compelling hunting, fishing, war, and newspaper stories we catch glimpses of too much drinking, a marriage that isn’t going well, a sibling and adult children with serious problems.
No writer is obligated to go where he does not want to go, but this particular reader (who is also a writer) was looking for more. Sometimes, it seems, the stories that are easy to tell get in the way of the stories that aren’t.
Another caution: Like all too many self-published books, this one could have benefited from stronger substantive editing and copy editing (son Jeffrey’s name even has three f’s in the dedication). And the extra-large pages, unbroken by images or other graphics, do not make reading easy.
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I posted the review above on Goodreads, writing for a general audience and trying to keep it short. Here are a few musings that I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to stuff into the review.
Nelson Bryant is of my parents’ generation. My father was also a World War II vet. My siblings and I fall into the same age range as Bryant’s children. More: my parents’ marriage was not happy, my father had affairs, and my mother was an alcoholic. Hence my strong suspicion that though Bryant is generous with his regrets about things done and undone, he hasn’t really grappled with what was going on and his own part in it. Again, no writer is obliged to go where he or she doesn’t want to go — but when writers hold back, readers often sense that they’re missing something.
From boyhood onward, where Bryant chose to go was into the “natural” world, of woods and streams, of shore and the ocean. This world was largely a man’s world, a “natural” extension of the male world of Dartmouth College and wartime military service. Except in the stories of his newspaper days, women remain in the background. His sons go hunting and fishing with him, but not, apparently, his daughters — or his wife. It’s encouraging that the more recent outdoor stories include his female partner, Ruth. They go into the woods together. He hunts and fishes; she draws and paints.
Things have changed indeed, in the storyteller and in the world at large, though deep in the woods, the great currents that rose in the mid–twentieth century — the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, and the women’s movement, among others — are as peripheral as women to the story. The natural world, it seems, offered refuge from all those convulsive, upsetting changes in the unnatural world. Tellingly, though Bryant was for two decades a columnist for the New York Times, he chose to have as little as possible to do with New York itself (a choice with which I have nothing but sympathy). At the same time, his urban connection gave him access to outdoor adventures that he might not have found on his own.
Which brings me round to Martha’s Vineyard, the main reason I’m blogging about Mill Pond Joe. Because after the very vivid boyhood stories, the Vineyard recedes into the background. It’s changing too, but we see the changes through the eyes of an occasional visitor, albeit one whose knowledge of the place is more than casual. The book takes its title from the persona Nelson Bryant created in telling his boyhood stories to his own kids (the girls as well as the boys?). It works, for Mill Pond Joe is, among other things, the tale of a fellow who has managed to live a life that looks, at least on the surface, like a boyhood dream come true.
In the years after WW2 Nelson Bryant sometimes worked for the West Tisbury builder Daniel Manter. He was part of the crew who built our house on the Middle Road in Chilmark. He wrote a wonderful piece for the Gazette (Oct. 10, 1978) in memory of “Dan’l.” As somebody interested in community as it once was on the Vineyard you might want to look it up.
Thanks so much for the lead!
Hate to say it but he sounds like a typical guy. Not sure how insightful he is. Did he just write this Susanna? I wasn’t sure if he was still alive.
Yep, he’s still alive, age 92. According to the book, he started writing it when he turned 90. It came out last fall.
Well done, Susanna…….
Thanks, Shirley. I kept thinking of your book as I was reading Nelson’s — which isn’t really fair, but still . . . Family and community are so front and center in your essays, but barely glimpsed background in Mill Pond Joe. We can live in the same place at the same time and see entirely different things.
I wonder how many truly honest memoirs are out there. It must be difficult to turn over all the rocks in public.
This memoirist turns over the rocks, but he doesn’t do much with what he finds there. In local interviews he’s often said that he thought it was important to tell the truth. And he does. What he doesn’t do is grapple with those truths the way he grapples with, say, fish he’s trying to land or rivers he’s trying to navigate or ducks he’s trying to shoot. I’m pretty sure there’s a level at which all these stories fit together, but he didn’t get there. Which isn’t a big surprise, because getting to that level generally takes practice — and/or editorial assistance, and/or some sort of therapy or 12-step program.