Of Sea and Cloud

By Jon Keller

(Adams Media, $24.99, 320 pages)

Who is this author?                                                                

From the mountains of Idaho and Montana to the rough coast of Maine, debut novelist Jon Keller is a writer who finds inspiration from a wild landscape. After earning an MFA degree from Boise State University, he moved to Maine, worked on a lobster boat and wrote for a commercial fishing newspaper. Needing more time for his writing, he left lobstering and took up clam digging.

Here is what he told fictionwritersreview.com about Maine and his work:

“The seascape amazed me; not just the beauty, but the starkness of it all, so absolute and consuming. For weeks on end, the world could go cold and gray in a way I’d not witnessed—so many subtle and varying degrees that were both harsh and beautiful. I was working on a lobster boat, so I spent huge amounts of time watching the water and the sky because there was nothing else to look at but lobster bait, which is just dead fish.

“I felt guilty for wanting to write about the lobster fishing world because it was such an old and insular place, and I was so new to it. It took me two years of working on the boat, and at the pound, before I began to write. In addition to my notes, I’d written a bunch of research-based articles concerning the economics and politics of commercial fisheries for a monthly paper, but when it came to the culture, I felt that I was touching on something nearing the sacred, and to write about the locals would be a form of trespass. Fiction writers have a serious responsibility, especially when writing about something that others view as sacred—and on the downeast coast of Maine, the entire culture is wrapped around the lobster industry. Then one day, while working on the boat, it dawned on me that I could spend a lifetime on the stern of a boat. By then, I felt like I’d put in enough time to not be a total interloper.

What is this book about?            

It’s the saga of a family devoted to lobster fishing: two brothers, Bill and Jonah, who have been taught this old and demanding trade by their father. But when he goes missing at sea, and is later found murdered, all at a time when the normally pricey crustaceans are losing their value on the market, they must make difficult decisions about whether to continue in their beloved but difficult and demanding family business. The brothers also must cope with the ill will of their father’s longtime business partner, a former minister and mystic who is working with his grandson to drive the brothers out of business — come hell or very high water. The book combines family drama, the tension between honoring tradition and welcoming change and the impact of globalization on this very idiosyncratic business.

Why you’ll like it:                        

This is a story of tough men in a harsh environment and an insider’s look at the dark side of the business that puts those yummy lobster rolls on your summer table.  So you get a fascinating fictional tale and a good look at the real-life world behind it. As Keller told the fictionwritersreview.com interviewer:

“Isolation, I think, works backwards in this case; instead of safeguarding a place from the onslaught of a global economy, the isolation exposes it. Many young fishermen are no longer learning to care for the industry the way their fathers and grandfathers had; instead, they take out huge loans and buy huge boats and catch unprecedented numbers of lobsters. The captain I worked for was of the older generation, and he talked often about the changes he was seeing—the younger generation’s apathy, the infringement of big business, the loss of waterfront access. It was all happening at once, and I tried to capture that whirlwind in the novel.

“. . . what it comes down to, though, is that the work I’ve done and the people I work with have kept my head in a place where I need it to be. By that I mean that as a writer, I spend a huge amount of time in my own head, thinking about story and plot and metaphor, motivation and reaction and all of that crap that will eventually drive me crazy if I don’t find a way to mediate it. Some writers drink, some meditate, some exercise, some go crazy. I turn to physical labor.”


What others are saying:                                    

Fictionwritersreview.com says: “. . . Of Sea and Cloud mixes elements of murder mystery with a Hamlet-esque meditation on revenge and its consequences. Partly a homage to the great seafaring novels of the canon, at its core it is an elegy for a dying way of life. Even as he subjects them to insurmountable economic and environmental forces, Keller manages to treat the Graves Brothers with a wealth of compassion.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “This atmospheric, gritty first novel from ex-lobsterman Keller takes place on Maine’s rugged coast. An argument flares up between lobster catchers Nicolas Graves and Osmond Randolph over their lobster pound, a protected cove used for harvesting the animals . . . Osmond, an imposing former Calvinist preacher said to experience strange religious visions, has plans to expand his operation in order to survive in the face of an increasingly corporate-dominated industry. He also dotes on his 20-year-old grandson Julius Wesley, a drug dealer. Nicolas leaves behind two sons, the older of whom, “Captain” Bill, is in the family business. The younger son, college-educated and introspective Jonah, had been estranged from Nicholas at the time of his death. . . . the two brothers discover . . . that Osmond may have murdered Nicolas, setting the stage for a feud between the two families. The rich lore of the Maine lobstermen combines with an energetic narrative and muscular prose to make Keller’s fiction debut a winner.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “The death of a fisherman off the wintry coast of Maine sparks a deadly feud in this debut novel. In a remote area near the Bay of Fundy, Nicolas Graves and his partner, Osmond Randolph, have a fight over the future of their lobstering business.  . . Osmond, a former minister, has no qualms about presiding at Nicolas’ empty-coffin funeral and then immediately setting traps on his old partner’s hunting ground. Without a thought for the consequences, Nicolas’ younger son, known as Jonah, cuts the traplines to warn Osmond off the family territory and costs his father’s old partner thousands in lost stock and equipment. Osmond, desperate to support his three grandchildren, wants to partner with a slick salesman from Boston who covets the lobsters stored in the saltwater pound Nicolas built. But Jonah and his older brother Bill don’t want to sell out to big corporations, as so many of the other local fishermen have had to do. To their shock, they discover that their father left no will and that Osmond is the sole owner of the business. A grisly reminder of their father’s death makes Jonah and Bill even more suspicious of Osmond. Woman trouble, rivalry between the brothers and a trapping war up the ante even more in a tale that vividly portrays a bleak land, a cruel sea, the unexpected beauty of the blueberry barrens and a dark side of Downeast Maine that tourist brochures rarely show. In a style as unadorned as the characters he creates, Keller builds suspense slowly but inexorably—not so much about the victim’s death as about what will happen when his fiercely independent sons find out how he died. “

Says Library Journal: “Keller’s debut novel examines the tough and hardscrabble world of Maine fishing families. Nicolas Graves, the patriarch of a lobster family, has worked his whole life and created what is known as a lobster pound, a cooperative of lobstermen who add their catch into a salt pond to sell when they have a good price. When Nicolas is lost at sea, Osmond Randolph, the town minister, mystic, and partner in the lobster pound, stands ready to take over and cut Nicolas’s two sons out. Jonas and Bill have to discover what really happened to their father and deal with Osmond and his shifty grandson. VERDICT With Shakespearean overtones, Keller’s immersive story examines the difficult choices that are made when a family legacy is at stake. His well-crafted narrative builds into an epic story of addiction, greed, betrayal, and the vast power of the sea.”

When is it available?                                         

You can catch this novel at the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Dwight branch.

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