Retreat to the Island Isle au Haut, Maine, for a look at the classic center-chimney New England Cape home of author and lobsterman Linda Greenlaw.
By Wayne Curtis
Apr 20 2009
Linda and her mom love cooking for their family. Here they prepare fresh salsa for grilled swordfish, from their cookbook, Recipes from a Very Small Island (Hyperion, 2005; $25.95). Try their recipe.Photo Credit : Roth, Eric
At first approach, Linda Greenlaw’s home on Isle au Haut, a brawny island seven miles off the coast of Maine, looks every bit like a classic center-chimney Cape–the sort of place that has offered welcome shelter along the New England shore for centuries.
Step inside, though, and it’s as if you’ve stepped right back out again. The ground floor of her home, which she built in 2000, is open and airy, lined with tall windows and glass doors that frame a virtual microcosm of Maine: spruce-covered hills, a bog dotted with the spiky stems of pitcher plant flowers, a choppy ocean stippled with whitecaps and studded with islands, and, in the distance, the rumpled, bluish Camden Hills. “What I didn’t want,” Linda says, “was a Cape that was all chopped up into little rooms.”
Once you’ve acclimated to the stunning view, you may notice the two outsized skeletal sculptures by Geoff Herguth. Above the fireplace is a noble swordfish; a lobster sits atop a boulder outside the front door, its claws raised in faint menace. These, in fact, are bookends bracketing the first two volumes of Linda’s maritime career.
After growing up in Midcoast Maine and graduating from Colby College in 1983, Linda disappointed her parents by passing up law school to chase fish on the high seas. Starting as an onboard cook, she worked her way up to captaining her own commercial swordboat. In 1997 she found sudden and unsought fame as a key player in the bestseller The Perfect Storm. In part it told her story of being at sea during the infamous October 1991 tempest, which led to the loss of six fishermen on the Andrea Gail out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. “Not only is Greenlaw one of the only women in the business,” wrote Sebastian Junger, “she’s one of the best captains, period, on the entire East Coast.” (In the film version, she was played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.)
In 1997, Linda traded in her tumultuous offshore life for the quieter inshore waters around Isle au Haut, where her parents were living and her father’s family has roots running back several generations. She took up lobstering, hiring her dad as sternman, and at the same time set off on a new adventure as a writer of nonfiction, novels, and, with her mother, Martha Greenlaw, a cookbook. Last fall she returned to swordfishing and hopes to make another trip or two this summer, though she plans to continue hauling lobster traps as well.
Linda started her house as almost everyone does: with a compromise. She originally wanted to place it at the water’s edge, but building a road was pricier than she thought. When the bulldozers reached a ledgy bluff overlooking the bog and the bay beyond, she thought, “Well, this is a good spot. I like it here!” She designed her house to serve three chief purposes: cooking, entertaining, and writing. The kitchen is set within a large alcove off the bright ground-floor room. It has countertops of Deer Island granite, an antique Glenwood stove, and an oversized soapstone sink that’s proven ideal for cleaning the abundance of island shellfish that comes through the front door by the bushel.
Linda’s 1926 Glenwood stove performs a neat trick: it makes a room warmer without even being lit. She discovered this funky, restored piece at an antique-stove shop in Littleton, Massachusetts (where she also found her soapstone sink).
She hauled it to the island in pieces on her lobster boat, and assembled it atop a homemade ledge of granite cobblestones, giving the stovetop a few extra inches of height. “Women were a lot shorter back then,” says Linda, who’s five foot three. “And that’s even compared with me.”
Linda did have to make one compromise: She longed for a cream-and-green Glenwood, but had to settle for gray. But any good fishing captain knows how to adapt to changing circumstances. So the reproduction pressed-tin wall behind the stove today is painted–of course–green, nicely offsetting the gray stove.
Getting together with family and friends is a primary diversion on an island where residents must devise their own entertainment. Linda has written that no island house is without a cribbage board. Her brother lives next door and her parents just beyond him–and she laughs that she’s probably related to half of the year-round population of about 50. There’s plenty of room in winter to gather around the five-foot square table custom built by Vermont’s Pompanoosuc Mills. Come summer, gatherings spill out through the doors to the two-level deck.
Linda doesn’t have a secluded space devoted to writing–no garrets or musty rooms filled with books. Like a hermit crab, she tends to occupy available space, where she writes in longhand before typing a final draft into her computer. “If I’m here by myself,” she explains, “I normally set up at my kitchen table and really spread out.”
When she finds the house filling with friends and family–and last November she became the legal guardian of an island teenager–she retreats to her spacious bedroom and works at a desk tucked under the eaves. The west-facing wall is glass, serving up endless views across the water to North Haven and Vinalhaven islands. With its sloping ceiling and expansive vistas, the space gives the sense of being cloistered while also connected to the broader world beyond. It’s the perfect retreat.
Well, almost perfect. “In the winter, when there’s snow on the ground and a full moon,” Linda says, “it’s so bright it’s impossible to sleep. I end up getting up and just looking out the window, and thinking, Wow, look at this.”
Linda’s next book, about her return to swordfishing after a hiatus of more than 10 years, will be published by Viking in the summer of 2010. Her previous books (all from Hyperion, 1999-2008) include: The Hungry Ocean ($7.99), The Lobster Chronicles ($13.95), All Fishermen Are Liars ($14), Slipknot ($6.99), and Fisherman’s Bend ($7.99).