The title story of Elizabeth Gilbert’s short-story collection Pilgrims (1997) is about a city girl’s abortive romance with a Wyoming ranch hand; in “Elks,” another story from the same collection, relatives from the city visit a woman who has made her home in the rural West and who now seems as foreign to them as they do to her. Stern Men, too, is about people, place, and commitment. It is also about how a determined, intelligent woman can transform an entire community.
When he first sees her shortly after her birth in 1958, the aging bachelor Senator Simon Addams is sure that Ruth Thomas will be someone special. However, to the other residents of Fort Niles Island, she is just another lobsterman’s child, though admittedly her father Stanley Thomas is better off than most. When she married Stanley, Mary Smith-Ellis Thomas left both Concord, New Hampshire, and the rich, selfish Vera Ellis, who considered Mary her personal handmaiden, on duty twenty-four hours a day. Mary and Stanley are happy together, and with the birth of a bright little daughter, their lives seem complete. Then, when Ruth is nine, the Thomases have a son, Ricky, who proves to be severely retarded. Shocked and grieved, Stanley points out that his family has never produced a child like Ricky and charges Mary with having unknowingly carried a genetic flaw. Mary knows very little about her antecedents. Her mother, Jane Smith-Ellis, was a foundling adopted by Dr. Jules Ellis, Vera’s father, because his little Vera had asked for a playmate. Jane later produced an illegitimate child, and she would never identify the father of the baby, except to say that he was an immigrant, presumably one of the Italians who worked at the Ellis Marble Company, the source of the Ellis family fortune. Deeply hurt by Stanley’s attitude and increasingly aware of the fact that her husband and she do not have the resources they will need if they are to keep their baby, Mary sees no alternative but to accept Lanford’s proposition and return to Vera, who is only too willing to provide a home for Ricky and some assistance for his mother if Mary will come back into her service.
At the time, Ruth is too happy being mothered by an exuberant neighbor, Rhonda Pommeroy, to feel the loss of her own mother. Even after she goes back home, she still gets more than her share of attention from her father, Rhonda, Senator Simon Addams, and the rest of the islanders. Though she sometimes visits her mother in Concord, Ruth can never be as close to her as she once was. Vera has complete control over the household, including Mary; and whatever energy Mary has left after she has attended to all of Vera’s needs she expends on her son.
However, if Mary has only a minimal influence over her daughter, Lanford and Vera Ellis are rich and powerful enough to make decisions on Mary’s behalf, and they do not intend to have their niece’s daughter be anything less than a credit to the Ellis family. After she has completed all the schooling the island offers, the Ellises send Ruth to boarding school in Delaware, and as soon as she graduates, they start discussing college. However, Ruth does not mean to remain on Fort Niles just for a summer. She does not intend to leave the island for college or any other project the Ellises may devise. To herself, Ruth has to admit that she may regret her obstinacy, for even though she misses Fort Niles when she is away from it, once she is back home she soon finds herself at loose ends. She would be happy working with her father on his boat, but he is adamant that lobstering is strictly for men. There are no longer any other jobs on Fort Niles, no new businesses unless one counts the hair-styling enterprise Rhonda started up after her husband was drowned. Ruth cannot even become a wife and mother unless she marries one of Rhonda Pommeroy’s rowdy boys, and Webster, the only intelligent one of Rhonda’s seven, has no interest in anything except digging for artifacts.
Like the Westerners in Gilbert’s short stories, Ruth knows where she belongs. Even though Fort Niles does not seem to offer her much of a future, she will spend her life there. At this point, a third of the way through the novel, the author seems to have left only one question to be resolved by the end of the book: Will her heroine’s obsession with place result in the waste of her considerable talents or will she find a way to make a life for herself without leaving...
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