PORTLAND, Maine — Munjoy Hill author Paul Ledman’s first book on Portland history has been a perennial local favorite, consistently showing up on Longfellow Books’ nonfiction bestseller list, since it was published in 2016.
Now it’s got company.
Preorders for Ledman’s second tome about Portland describing the city’s rich past recently landed it on the Longfellow list before even being officially published this spring.
“It’s doing really well and really selling briskly in its first few weeks,” said Grace Sleeman of Longfellow Books. “People seem just as interested in it as they were with his first book.”
The new book, “Portland Maine: Connections Across Time,” is ambitious. Whereas the author’s prior work, “Walking Through History: Portland Maine on Foot,” was a practical guide for informative strolls around the city, his second book seeks to tease out the historical reasons the city is what it is these days.
“You know, you can only understand what’s going on today if you understand what happened in the past,” Ledman said.
Ledman has also published a book about Cape Elizabeth and the Civil War.
Sleeman said she’s not surprised that Ledman’s books are popular. The staff at the store is always pointing people to his first work about Portland as the best historic guidebook for the city — and Ledman’s second offering is a fitting follow up.
“We’re closing in on having sold 4,000 copies of the first book,” Ledman said. “It was all word of mouth.”
In “Connections Across Time” Ledman paints his pictures of the past in sweeping, broad strokes, and traces Portland’s development from its earliest European settlers in the 1600s, all the way to the 20th century’s first few decades.
Presented more or less chronologically, the author lays out events in 16 chapters. Each chapter concentrates on a city neighborhood, first placing local events in a world history context before showing how they can still illuminate something about Portland today. Ledman often uses remaining buildings or other physical features to make his modern-day points.
Sometimes the webs Ledman weaves get complicated and cross each other but he’s always able to follow each strand to an insightful conclusion.
For example, chapter seven deals with the middle of Portland’s peninsula. As background, Ledman begins with an early, colonial-era housing boom brought to a halt by an 1807 Napoleonic War economic downturn. He then explains why only the Longfellow House on Congress Street remains from this period.
The reason, he explains, is because as the economy picked up again in the 1830s, and Portland came to national prominence as an economic shipping hub, the city’s new barony class tore down the earlier structures, replacing them with more grand, Federalist-era, dwellings — which still stand today.
“As the city continued to expand west, more streets and homes sprung up where there had been woods fewer than 10 years previously,” Ledman writes. “These newly-created West End neighborhoods were soon among the most desirable in the city.”
And they still are.
Ledman then goes on to detail some of the neighborhood’s most celebrated Federalist-style dwellings, who built them and how they made their fortunes.
It’s not all pretty to hear about.
Some of the money came from slavery and the international sugar trade. He also details the city’s former poor farm, below the fashionable West End, where those who missed out on the economic good times were sometimes locked away and forgotten.
Other chapters in the book explain how other neighborhoods, including Back Cove, Deering Oaks Park and Monument Square, came to be as we know them today.
As with Ledman’s previous Portland history book — both are self-published — the newer work includes a luxurious, historic, pull-out map nice enough to frame and put on the wall.
Originally from New York, Ledman said he first got interested in learning about local history as a way to get to know his adopted city when he first moved to the city more than 30 years ago. Now with two Portland popular books finished, Ledman said he’s not sure if he’ll publish another.
“I’m a project guy. I’ve gone from being a geologist to law to writing history books,” he said. “Right now, I’m concentrating on building a deck for my neighbor.”