Chute, Carolyn 1947-

views updated

CHUTE, Carolyn 1947-

PERSONAL: Surname is pronounced "Chewt," with a hard ch as in chocolate; born June 14, 1947, in Portland, ME; daughter of Joseph R. (in electrical parts sales) and Annie (a homemaker; maiden name, Prindall) Penny; married James Hawkes (a factory worker), December 8, 1963 (divorced, February 22, 1972); married Michael Chute (in woodcutting, firewood sales, and snow plowing), May 13, 1978; children: (first marriage) Joannah Hawkes Bowie; (second marriage) Reuben (deceased). Education: Attended University of Southern Maine, 1972-78. Politics: "Very patriotic. Very disappointed."

ADDRESSES: Home—Parsonsfield, ME. Agent—Jane Gelfman, John Farquharson Ltd., 250 West 57th St., Suite 1914, New York, NY 10107.

CAREER: Variously employed as a waitress, chicken factory worker, hospital floor scrubber, shoe factory worker, potato farm worker, tutor, canvasser, teacher, social worker, and school bus driver; Portland Evening Express, Portland, ME, part-time suburban correspondent, 1976-81; University of Southern Maine, Portland, instructor in creative writing, 1985.

MEMBER: American Civil Liberties Union.

AWARDS, HONORS: First prize for fiction, Green Mountain Workshop, 1977.


The Beans of Egypt, Maine, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1985, new edition published as The Beans of Egypt, Maine: The Finished Version, Harcourt Brace (San Diego, CA), 1995.

Metal Man, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1988.

Letourneau's Used Auto Parts, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1988.

Merry Men, Harcourt Brace (New York, NY), 1994. Snow Man, Harcourt Brace (New York, NY), 1999.

Contributor to books, including Up River: The Story of a Maine Fishing Community, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1996, I Was Content and Not Content: The Story of Linda Lord and the Closing of Penobscot Poultry, Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, IL), 2000, and Inside Vacationland: New Fiction From the Real Maine, edited by Mark Melnicove, Dog Ear Press, 1985. Contributor to periodicals, including Esquire, Agni Review, Shenandoah, Plowshares, Ohio Review, Grand Street, Puckerbrush Review, and Northeast. Author of column in Courier Free Press, 1978-79.

ADAPTATIONS: The Beans of Egypt, Maine was adapted as a film in 1994, directed by Jennifer Warren.

SIDELIGHTS: Carolyn Chute's fictional portraits of life in the backwoods of Maine have drawn praise for their humor, lyrical writing style, and the respect for humanity shown in them. Chute's work has been compared to that of Erskine Caldwell, Alice Walker, and William Faulkner. Her best-known fictions concern the residents of Egypt, Maine, as told in The Beans of Egypt, Maine, Letourneau's Used Auto Parts, and Merry Men. Her characters are poor, uneducated, frequently violent and prone to bad turns of luck. The author is no stranger to the kind of difficult life shown in her fiction. She spent many years as a single parent working minimum wage jobs, at times going without heat or proper food. Lack of money for medical care led to the death of her infant son, a tragedy that ultimately sparked her writing career, in an attempt "to sort of create life" from devastating loss, as Mary Battiata quoted Chute as saying in a Washington Post article. Her subject matter came from the people around her: "People who work in factories, or in the woods, or maybe a dairy farm. . . . No pretensions. They just live their lives. I found them beautiful. They were all I seemed to be interested in writing about."

Her first published book, The Beans of Egypt, Maine, was a surprise bestseller, going through several printings within months of its publication. The Beans are a family whose lives are filled with the violence, ignorance, and need that extreme poverty can bring; still, they are a robust lot who seem to scorn the unseen, malign forces that beset their lives. The story evolves episodically, told alternately by a third-person narrator and by Earlene, a neighbor of the Beans who eventually becomes a part of their tribe through pregnancy and marriage. The Beans' singular ways eventually form the fabric of Earlene's life, and she finds that the familiar violence brings her a peculiar sense of comfort and belonging. Although some readers perceived this as a cautionary tale, Chute has made it clear that the book is not intended as such. She "intended the novel as tragic comedy, a story of defiance and occasional triumph," wrote Battiata. "She sympathizes with the Beans. She likes them." Ann Marie Cunningham, writing in Ms., noted that "Chute is trying to show that men and women who have no desire or talent for the American dream are of value. . . . Rather than offering solutions to Earlene's plight, she wants readers to contemplate it, to know what it feels like to be poor."

Some reviewers were unsettled by Chute's unflinching portrait of the Beans; by her bleak vision for have-nots; and by her disregard for making judgments or prescribing change. In the Times Literary Supplement Valerie Miner claimed: "Ultimately . . . Chute's writing subverts itself with veiled self-hatred, a voyeuristic tone and the compulsive acceleration of grotesquerie. . . . [She] succeeds only in creating a sense of morbid, puerile curiosity. The book becomes an exhausting exercise in pushing back the boundaries of repulsion." Some were confused by Chute's attitude toward Earlean's journey into the Beans' world. New York Times Book Review contributor Bertha Harris commented that "beneath the comedy and the religious interplay," she found "the trouble is knowing what Mrs. Chute thinks." The reviewer wondered, "Does she really believe that Earlene's degradation has a kind of holy beauty?"

Yet many reviewers found a great beauty in Chute's writing. Thomas Williams praised it in the ChicagoTribune Book World, observing: "In it there is no sentimentality, no social propaganda, because the hardness of its language turns all such opportunities into experience itself. . . . There is no doubt that [Chute] does in fact live the life she invokes, but she can also brilliantly define it. . . . She has that marvelous distance, the divine schizophrenia of the artist, in which a cold eye and passion coexist." The critic added that the novel's fast pace, "wild humor," and fully realized characters sweep its middle-class readers relentlessly into the dark world of Egypt. Suzanne Freeman offered similar observations in her Washington Post Book World review. "Chute takes care to give [the Beans] a wonderful, low, brutish appeal," noted Freeman. "[She] takes us right to the innards of the family secrets and what we find there is every bit as messy as we might have expected . . . what she does do is handle it with astonishing humor and good grace. In scene after scene, her vision, which is both knowing and funny, sustains us. . . . She has a wealth of knowledge about the human spirit." Village Voice critic Ellen Lesser noted that "part of Chute's considerable accomplishment is that she makes the reader see the Beans as people, not animals . . . show[ing] with a meticulous humanity the reality beneath the stereotype." Lesser continued: "[Chute] writes with tremendous vigor and precision, rendering Egypt and its inhabitants with a stark but lyrical poetry. . . . [She] never shies away from the brutal or the ugly. . . . Yet her vision also has scope for lust among the soil and squash vines, for tenderness, for dreams."

Chute continued to chronicle life in Egypt in Letourneau's Used Auto Parts. Big Lucien Letourneau's auto parts business is at the center of a collection of trailers and shacks housing his ex-wives, his many children, and other assorted people living under his protection. While the story revolves around Big Lucien's clan, he himself is rarely seen, giving him a mythical quality. Much of the story takes place in dingy, cold living spaces filled with and surrounded by rusty, peeling clutter of every sort, yet "the final effect . . . is anything but depressing," wrote novelist Anne Tyler in a New Republic review. "In part, that's because of the vitality of the characters. They are positively teeming with life; they may be miserable but they're also fierce, in the most heartening and salutary way. Even more important, Chute's writing style is so forthright and assured, so absolutely unlike anyone else's, that it works a kind of alchemy." The saga of life in Egypt continues in Merry Men, which focuses on Lloyd, a college graduate who writes poetry; his half-brother Floyd, who works a backhoe and eventually becomes Road Commissioner; and Carroll, a hard-drinking ex-convict who is redeemed by Anneka, a waitress who crusades against social injustice. It is a "dark, angry, swollen book," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer.

Chute moved to an urban setting with her novel Snow Man. Robert, the main character, is a militiaman who is full of rage over the loss of his property. He seeks revenge on big business and government. After executing a senator, Robert sees his fellow militiamen gunned down, and he is shot as well, but escapes. Finding shelter with the wife and daughter of another senator, Robert is soon sleeping with both women, who eventually help him to evade the FBI and escape back to Maine. Full of improbable plot twists, the novel is nonetheless "a juicy, topical, sometimes trashy thriller with a gently skewed perspective on America in the 1990s," wrote Diane Carman in the Denver Post. "It examines Chute's favorite topics: the politics of social class, economic extremes and old-fashioned sex. In the end, everybody's role in the universe survives pretty much intact despite the intimate contact with the other side, which is the one utterly realistic part of this story."

The background of Snow Man reflects Chute's own involvement in an organization known as the Second Maine Militia, which sprang up as an alternative to right-wing militias. While sharing their dissatisfaction with the alliance between government and big business, Chute and her comrades saw a need for a less-extreme group. Spelling out her prescription for a more just America, Chute suggested in a New Democracy article that it should be illegal for corporations to lobby or donate to politicians, "In any way. Not just corporations. Anybody. No money. Campaigns shouldn't cost money. We need to use our wonderful imaginations and think up how that can be done. It can be done. . . . We need to bring back serious charter revocation of corporations that hurt people or the planet.... And no damn paper or oil company (for instance) should be able to own over half the State of Maine. Or trillions in capital. Unlimited property and wealth all in one hand is dangerous, whether it be Capitalists or Communists or Caesar or a Pharaoh."

Chute once told CA: "My main interests besides writing are psychology, anthropology, history, sociology, family, friends, animals, seasons, bees, sapping, letters, bluegrass music, and photography. This sounds like a lot of hobbies, but it isn't. These things are all that matter in life."



Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 39, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.


Booklist, November 1, 1993, Donna Seaman, review of Merry Men, p. 483; February 1, 1999, Denise Blank, review of Snow Man, p. 961.

Boston Herald, June 1, 1997, Jules Crittenden, "Author Leads Crusade Vs. Bad Government," p. 6.

Boston Phoenix, August 5, 1999, Sarah Schulman, review of Snow Man.

Chicago Tribune Book World, December 23, 1984.

Denver Post, May 23, 1999, Diane Carman, review of Snow Man, p. H2.

Esquire, August, 1985.

Fresno Bee, August 29, 1999, Meg Richards, review of Snow Man, p. E3.

Houston Chronicle, May 30, 1999, Sharan Gibson, review of Snow Man, p. 27.

Library Journal,June 15, 1988, Linda L. Rome, review of Letourneau's Used Auto Pats, p. 67; November 1, 1993, Charles Michaud, review of Merry Men, p. 147; January, 1999, Beth E. Andersen, review of Snow Man, p. 147.

Los Angeles Times, December 31, 1984; May 9, 1999, Susan Salter Reynolds, review of Snow Man, p. 2.

Ms., April, 1985.

Nation, July 2, 1988, Art Winslow, review of Letourneau's Used Auto Parts, p. 29.

New Republic, July 11, 1988, Anne Tyler, review of Letourneau's Used Auto Parts, p. 40.

Newsweek, February 25, 1985; June 13, 1988, David Gates, review of Letourneau's used Auto Parts, p. 79.

New York, June 30, 1986, Rhoda Koeig, review of The Beans of Egypt, Maine, p. 138.

New York Times Book Review, July 31, 1988, Clarence Major, review of Letourneau's Used Auto Parts, p. 9; February 6, 1994, Ann Hulbert, review of Merry Men, p. 15.

New Yorker, February 14, 1994, Anna Shapiro, review of Merry Men, p. 97.

New York Times, January 4, 1985, Bertha Harris, review of The Beans of Egypt, Maine, p. 7; January 30, 1985, Andrea Stevens, "Caring about the Working Poor," p. 7; February 19, 1996, "Maine Novelist Organizes a Populist 'Militia,'" p. A7.

New York Times Book Review, January 13, 1985; December 7, 1986, Patricia T. O'Conner, review of The Beans of Egypt, Maine, p. 82; June 13, 1999, Dwight Garner, review of Snow Man, p. 21.

People, March 25, 1985.

PMLA, January, 2000, Cynthia Ward, "From the Suwanee to Egypt, There's No Place Like Home," p. 75.

Publishers Weekly, November 6, 1987, review of The Beans of Egypt, Maine (sound recording), p. 37; April 29, 1988, Sybil Steinberg, review of Letourneau's Used Auto Parts, p. 63; October 18, 1993, review of Merry Men, p. 63; December 21, 1984; January 25, 1985; February 15, 1999, review of Snow Man, p. 84.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 25, 1999, Sylvia Duncan, review of Snow Man, p. F10.

Time, June 20, 1988, R. Z. Sheppard, review of Letourneau's Used Auto Parts, p. E6; December 5, 1994, Richard Schickel, review of The Beans of Egypt, Maine (film), p. 92.

Times (London, England), June 13, 1985.

Times Literary Supplement, December 6, 1985.

Variety, May 30, 1994, Leonard Klady, review of The Beans of Egypt, Maine, p. 51.

Village Voice, February 19, 1985.

Wall Street Journal, January 13, 1989, Helen Dudar, review of The Beans of Egypt, Maine, p. A9.

Washington Post, February 10, 1985.

Washington Post Book World, February 17, 1985.


New Democracy Web site, (July 10, 2003), interview with Carolyn Chute., (July 10, 2003), "Carolyn Chute's Wicked Good Militia."*