Gregory Brown’s debut novel, “The Lowering Days,” is set in a fictionalized version of Maine, in a made-up town somewhere between Belfast and Bucksport, along the lower Penobscot River. It has a paper mill, and a working waterfront, and a population made up of working-class folks, hippies and Indigenous people.
In short: it’s not unlike the world Brown himself grew up in, in the 1980s and 1990s in Waldo County.
“It’s a mixture of all the various pockets of the midcoast and along the Penobscot River that I absorbed growing up,” said Brown, now a resident of the Cumberland County town of Casco. “The fiction that often interests me the most is that kind that lets the mythology and folklore of a place shine out from behind the recognizable, real-life details.”
“The Lowering Days,” out on March 2 and published by HarperCollins, tells a sweeping story with which many Mainers may be familiar — about family dynamics, about what happens to a town once its main employer closes, about environmental degradation and about the complicated relationship between Indigenous people and white settlers.
Growing up in Belfast, Brown saw firsthand the way that the city’s main employer — the chicken processing industry whose plants lined the town’s waterfront for decades until they closed in the 1980s, followed by credit card giant MBNA — shaped the lives of its citizens. Both of his parents worked for both employers at various points while he was growing up.
He also saw how industry can wreak havoc upon the environment, whether it was the polluted Belfast waterfront, or the runoff from paper mills choking the Penobscot River with dangerous chemicals. In “The Lowering Days,” the local paper mill is on the brink of reopening after a long closure, and many townsfolk have pinned their hopes on it — while members of the local tribal community see it as yet another way in which white society has attacked their way of life.
The interplay between Native and non-Native, local and from away, young and old, rich and poor is at the heart of “The Lowering Days,” which takes its title from the newspaper started by one of the main characters, Falon, the matriarch of the Ames family. Her husband, boatbuilder Arnoux Ames, and her three sons, David, Link and Simon, comprise the rest of the family.
Though Brown’s own family isn’t at all like the Ames family, he did grow up in a family of storytellers — and that storytelling tradition among both Native and white families in Maine is something he’s inspired by as a writer.
“There is a real strong tradition of storytelling here in Maine, where ordinary things take on a kind of gravitas,” he said. “I think because Maine is a little cut off from the rest of the country, and because we are very dedicated to doing things our own way, it has forced us to be highly reflective about our lives. You build your own world.”
For Brown, that’s probably one of the reasons why he ended up becoming a writer. After attending Thomas College in Waterville, he went on to get a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University, and later received a master’s in fine arts from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
In 2012, he returned to Maine to raise his daughter. He spent several years teaching high school English and college-level creative writing, and later working as a book editor, all the while writing short stories that have appeared in publications including Tin House, Alaska Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Epoch and Narrative Magazine.
He began work in earnest on “The Lowering Days” around the same time he began volunteering for Wabanaki REACH, the organization that works to promote healing, reconciliation and understanding between Wabanaki and non-Native people in Maine. The book deals with many of the topics REACH deals with every day in the real world.
“I tried to put in a lot of care to make sure I wrote a book that included the full cultural scope of the region, and not a whitewashed version of it,” Brown said. “This land was someone else’s land before my family or any other white person’s family arrived, and it was very, very important to capture that in the book.”
“The Lowering Days” will be available on March 2, wherever books are sold. Brown will appear at several digital events in Maine next month, including a Zoom talk with The Briar Patch in Bangor on March 2, a Zoom talk with Maine author Kerri Arsenault with Print: A Bookstore in Portland on March 9, a digital conversation at the Portland Public Library with artist Jason Brown on March 17, and a digital conversation with author Richard Russo on March 23 at Left Bank Books in Belfast.