Digest>Archives> November 2007

A Little Light Reading

By By Jeremy D'Entremont


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There have been so many new lighthouse books published in the past 10 years or so that you might think there couldn't possibly be anything new under the sun. But — luckily for those of us who write about lighthouses — there's seemingly no end to the stories they tell, and it is possible for new volumes to tell us things we didn't already know. Following are some of the recent books I can strongly recommend to any pharologist, amateur or professional.

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Larry Wright, who is known in lighthouse circles as an award-winning photographer and author, has also served on the board of directors of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association. Larry and his wife, Patricia, collaborated on the books Bonfires and Beacons and Bright Lights, Dark Nights. Their latest effort, the 448-page Great Lakes Lighthouse Encyclopedia, published in 2006 by the Boston Mills Press in Ontario, is remarkable in its scope and quality. Believe it or not, there's substantial historical information here on more than 650 lighthouses, American and Canadian, on all five Great Lakes.

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The Wrights' writing is clear and concise, and their excellent modern-day color photos are mingled with numerous archival images. Entries for each lighthouse range from a paragraph to a couple of pages, and today's preservation efforts are given their due attention. This is a rare combination of a handsome coffee-table type book that will also serve as an invaluable reference volume for years to come.

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Chris Mills is a veteran of nine years of keeping Canadian lights and 30 years of visiting them. Many of you will know him from articles in Lighthouse Digest and elsewhere and for his wonderful book Vanishing Lights. His new book, Lighthouse Legacies: Stories of Nova Scotia's Lightkeeping Families (Nimbus Publishing, 2006) was years in the making, and it shows. As Mills states in the preface, saving the memories of lighthouse people is as important as saving the structures themselves. “We're at a critical point in lighthouse history in Canada,” he writes, “as the old timers die off. In another decade or so, there won't be many people who know what it was like to climb inside a glittering Fresnel lens, set a match to a kerosene vapour light, or stand on the spokes of a huge flywheel to start a foghorn engine.”

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Mills began interviewing former lightkeepers and their families back in 1993, and he picked up the pace in 2000, “spurred by the obituaries in the newspaper” and a determination to save as much history as possible before it was lost. The result is an entertaining series of vignettes that are sometimes dramatic and often humorous. There are the common elements of lighthouse life — the routine of the job and the battles with storms. What's amazing is the good humor and resilience of most of these people as they've dealt with various hardships. As one keeper's daughter says, “It's surprising how normal life was under those circumstances. It really is.”

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Elinor DeWire has long been known as one of the most prolific and entertaining of lighthouse writers. She's demonstrated a knack for finding the human-interest stories behind the facts. Her latest, The Lightkeepers' Menagerie (Pineapple Press, 2007) is a delight. As described in the prologue, the book contains animal stories “from all around the world, tales of happiness and sadness, courage and cowardice, tragedy and comedy, even absurdity.”

As you might expect, dogs get the lions' share of the coverage here. There are the lifesaving dogs, like Milo at Massachusetts' Egg Rock, who was immortalized in a popular painting. And there are the “fog dogs,” like Spot at Owls Head and Sailor at Wood Island, both in Maine. These animals were celebrated for their ability to sound the stations' fog bells by pulling a rope with their teeth. These stories may already be familiar to many lighthouse buffs, but DeWire also includes much less-known material: sled dogs at Alaskan light stations and elsewhere, Coast Guard mascots, and more.

There's plenty on cats, as well — fishing cats, climbing cats, parachuting cats, even ghost cats. Horses and mules are given their due as pets and workers. DeWire doesn't stop there; there's much entertaining material on cows, chickens, turkeys, and sheep — just about every animal that's ever lived at a lighthouse. All of it is written in De Wire's usual breezy style, with countless photos.

Already reviewed in this magazine, Jane Molloy Porter's Friendly Edifices: Piscataqua Lighthouses and Other Aids to Navigation (Portsmouth Marine Society, 2006) is a volume of tremendous depth and detail. Only five new Hampshire and Maine lighthouses are covered in its 541 pages: Portsmouth Harbor, White Island, Whaleback, Boon Island, and Cape Neddick. Just about every fact you might want to know is included, but the book is not dry and scholarly; full attention is given to the lives of keepers and their families. Smaller aids to navigation in the Piscataqua region are also included.

Portland Head Light: A Pictorial Journey Through Time (FogHorn Publishing, 2006) is an affectionate look at one of New England's best loved lighthouses. Author of several books and president of the American Lighthouse Foundation, Timothy E. Harrison, provides some basic history of the station, but the emphasis here is on human history told through words and images. Many of the photos have never before been published.

The Strout family, with a presence of more than a century at Portland Head,

is given due attention. There are many wonderful photos of the Strouts and other keepers, including Assistant Keeper

Robert T. Sterling, who went on to write an important book on Maine lighthouses. There are photos galore of Portland Head Light in all of its many moods, from archival images to postcards to magazine ads. There's also a section covering other lighthouses in the vicinity. If there's one “must-see” lighthouse in Maine, it's Portland Head, and everyone who cherishes this place will want this book.

Lighthouse Keeping/Light Housekeeping by Ernest G. DeRaps and Pauline DeRaps (FogHorn Publishing, 2006), is a unique and entertaining book on Maine lighthouse life under the Coast Guard. Ernie DeRaps is a retired Coast Guardsman who spent much of his career as the officer in charge at Maine light stations at Monhegan, Fort Point, Heron Neck, and Brown's Head. His folksy and entertaining recollections are matched by those of his wife, Pauline (Polly), who writes with flair and humor. The book is illustrated with Ernie DeRaps's photos and original drawings. Ernie and Polly have been giving slide presentations on lighthouses for years, and it's fortunate that they decided to put their memories on paper.

Younger readers (12 and up) will enjoy Mind the Light, Katie (Cypress Communications, 2006), a condensed version of the classic Women Who Kept the Lights by Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford. The stories of 33 female keepers are told here, including the famed Ida Lewis of Lime Rock in Rhode Island, Maine's Abbie Burgess Grant, and Kate Walker of Robbins Reef, New York. The chapters are filled with quotes from the women themselves, and the book is illustrated with many beautifully reproduced archival photos of the women and their stations. This book is a perfect introduction for any young person to the fascinating subject of lighthouse history, as well as a reminder of the immeasurable role played by women. The Cliffords have reliably produced very high quality work and this is no exception.

Mishap and Mystery (Pleasant Word, 2007), Terry Webb's third book in her “Lighthouse Louie” series for young readers is the best yet, with all the action you could ask for, including a blizzard and a shipwreck, and a tantalizing mystery to be solved. The young hero, assistant lighthouse keeper Louie Hollander, learns important new lessons about adult responsibility, but Ms. Webb's style is always enjoyable and never overtly preachy. She presents a realistic picture of life at an island lighthouse more than a century ago, with all its harshness, dangers, and beauty. This book series provides an ideal way for young people to learn about this important part of our nation's maritime history.

Finally, I hope you'll forgive a little shameless self-promotion. The Lighthouse of Massachusetts, the third in the “Lighthouse Treasury” series I’ve been writing for Commonwealth Editions, was released in early July. The book is 480 pages in length, with chapters on every lighthouse in the state, past and present. As always, I’ve concentrated on the stories of the people at the lighthouses, in the hope that they’ll entertain readers as much as they’ve entertained me.

This story appeared in the November 2007 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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