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Pocketful of Names by Joe Coomer
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Pocketful of Names

by Joe Coomer

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One of the most powerful, thought-provoking books I've read this year.  Our book club chose this one for its setting and to a person agreed that the setting was a large contributor to the depth and richness of the story.

Hannah is an artist who has come to live on Ten Acre No Nine Island which she inherited from her uncle Arno.  She hasn't been to the island in 8 years since she'd spent summers with her uncle.  Now that he's dead, she wants nothing more than to be left alone so she can paint and sculpt.  That's who she is--at least that's who she thinks she is. As the story opens, a scruffy old mutt who has obviously fallen into the water someplace offshore, manages to beach himself on her island.  When she discovers him, she cannot figure out what to do with him, reluctantly names him "Driftwood" and allows him into her life.

As the months progress, others arrive on her island and each time, Hannah must decide whether to allow them to stay, how to relate to them, what they ultimately will mean to them.  She continues to paint and to sculpt, but finds the constant stream of people in her life are gradually skewing her perception of solitude.  Was she lonely?

The story of Hannah, her dog, her friends, the townspeople on the mainland, her half-sister,  a runaway teen fleeing an abusive father, and her uncle are all intertwined in a beautiful tale of life and loss and caring and sharing. Coomer gives us a wide panoply of characters who represent the whole spectrum of life in Maine.  There are warring lobstermen, hard working high school students, disabled veterans, demented elders, beached whales, tourists, and homeless relatives.  How and whether Hannah allows each of these into her life, into her heart,  is the story.  It's a glorious story, beautifully written, with simple words, complex thoughts, and all the beauty life on the rugged shores of Maine can provide.

One of my ten best of the year. ( )
9 vote tututhefirst | Sep 25, 2012 |
What beautifully written prose. An incredible, lyric book. Excellent with a cup of tea... ( )
  speltbaker | Jan 31, 2011 |
chose this book for our summer bookclub, knowing that just about everyone would find the cover with the black lab terribly appealing. The fact that so many of us in the group also spend our summers on islands (although in a far different manner than the main character here) didn't hurt either. The meeting hasn't happened yet but I have high hopes that it will turn out well. There's certainly enough to talk about in here to keep us busy for quite some time.

Opening with a dog falling off a passing boat, swimming desperately towards land and ultimately being washed ashore, this is the story of Hannah, an artist and a hermit, who lives a contented life painting and creating art on the remote Maine island her great-uncle left to her. Hannah is skilled at keeping people out of her life but when she finds the dog sleeping on a ledge in the old stone quarry that makes a sort of harbor on her island, she takes him in, naming him Driftwood. The dog is just the first in a motley collection of people and creatures in need who arrive on her island and in her life.

Initially determined to keep him out, Hannah finds herself coming to value the high school boy fleeing his abusive father and posing as her nephew sent her way by her half-sister for safe haven. As Will becomes a fixture on the island, even posing for Hannah, he quietly steals into her heart. With Will's presence come more people intruding into Hannah's solitude. She befriends Zee, the local boat delivery service girl, and Zee's father, Tom, and grandfather. Tom and Hannah come to a comfortable relationship and through him Hannah starts to learn not only about her great uncle, but also about who she herself is really. This self-knowledge becomes crucial as Hannah faces the biggest setback in her life.

Coomer has written an understated masterpiece in this book with Hannah's island as the perfect metaphor for life. As more and more people, and even an animal or two, invade her space, Hannah comes to understand the difference between solitude and loneliness. She learns that opening her life to others enriches it beyond measure. And she learns that no matter how barren and rocky a place, no matter how thin the soil, things will grow. And while this sounds like it could be sappy as all get out, Coomer handles it deftly, surely, keeping it true to the stoic New England characters he's drawn here. The setting is accurate and reflective of the overall book. Clearly this story could take place no where else and yet, in terms of the underlying theme, it does take place all over the world all the time.
Coomer writes with meticulous precision. His characters are people you think you might be likely to meet in the local restaurant in any small Maine lobster town. None of them are perfect and as each character starts to reveal him or herself, each one becomes more faceted and more realistic. The book manages to evoke the sights, smells, and sounds of ocean islands effortlessly.

Perhaps the best summation of the book comes from the novel itself. On page 150, Hannah muses:

She'd read somewhere that there were three things worth doing in life: making something new, caring for something old, and finding something lost. Her art was new; the house was worthy of care. What had been lost? It was like asking what had been forgotten. You didn't know until you remembered it. She wouldn't know what was lost until she found it.

A powerful novel, I really enjoyed this one and look forward to more of Coomer's work. Fingers crossed that the book club feels the same way! ( )
2 vote whitreidtan | Mar 8, 2010 |
A really wonderful story that I would highly recommend.
  mhaskell | Sep 23, 2008 |
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"Inhabiting an island off the coast of Maine, left to her by her great-uncle Arno, Hannah finds her life as a dedicated and solitary artist rudely interrupted one summer when a dog, matted with feathers and seaweed, arrives with the tide. The dog quickly endears himself and easily adapts to Hannah's schedule, but he is only the first in a string of unexpected visitors. He is soon followed by a teenager running from an abusive father, a half sister in trouble, a mainland family in need, and a trapped whale. Now in the midst of a community that depends on her for support and love, Hannah faces new emotional challenges as a series of family secrets are uncovered, each one more alarming than the last."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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