5 July 2018

Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert

Can you guys tell we're like, obsessed with Elizabeth Gilbert yet or what? This is the second fiction novel I've read of hers and it had a lot of similarities to the first (The Signature of All Things) which I loved. Gilbert has a way of writing these strong female characters without being overboard about it. I picked this up in an amazing used bookstore in the Milwaukee airport of all places and I remember being super excited to read it because it's set on the American East Coast, my favourite literary landscape.

Elizabeth Gilbert (left) hugging ANOTHER ONE OF OUR FAVOURITE AUTHORS, Cheryl Strayed (right)

Stern Men is about lobster fisherman on two small islands off the coast of Maine in the 1960s/70s, however, it's really about a girl named Ruth Thomas. Ruth grows up the daughter of a lobster fisherman and the grandaughter of a very wealthy asshole who owns a granite company on the island and essentially holds her mother hostage throughout most of Ruth's childhood. Ruth is raised primarily around men, she works on her dad's lobster boat most summers, and she is cared for by a woman who is also raising seven boys. Because of all this testosterone Ruth develops a very stubborn and hard-headed persona.

As humans, after all, we become that which we seek. Dairy farming makes men steady and reliable and temperate; deer hunting makes men quiet and fast and sensitive; lobster fishing makes men suspicious and wily and ruthless.” 

One of the primary reasons I loved The Signature of All Things is that I got to learn an insane amount of details about botany. Gilbert does not disappoint in this area with Stern Men and I feel like an extremely competent lobster fisherman just for having read the book. Each chapter starts with a fun fact about lobsters which is a format I love, for example, lobsters realize they're imprisoned almost immediately and will lose interest entirely for the bait they've just chased. I also learned a ton about the history of lobster fishing. I imagine there are many more standards in place now than there were in the dog-eat-dog 60's that the book is set in, but it was fascinating to learn about which type of men got ahead, and using which strategies. Men who had too many morals made lousy lobster fisherman, selfish men were usually the best.

If he is a lobsterman, he must make these decisions every day. It's the way of the business. And over the years, a lobsterman develops a policy, a reputation. If he's fishing for a living, fishing to feed his family, he cannot afford to be passive, and in time he'll come to be known as either a pusher or as cutter. It's hard to avoid becoming one or the other. He must fight to extend his territory by pushing another man's trap line, or he must fight to defend his territory by cutting away the traps of anyone who pushes in on his."

The major conflict throughout the novel is that Ruth's parents want her to get away from the island. They send her to a boarding school in Delaware, they believe there's nothing for her in their hometown. However, Ruth feels incredibly loyal to the island and the fishermen there, as well as her family. She continues to come back, refuses to apply to college, etc. I won't spoil the end of the book for you but it does have an incredibly positive and motivational ending. The takeaway is that you can do whatever you want, regardless of what others tell you you can or can't do. I'm not entirely sure that I believe in this message, but it was a good read nonetheless and very true to Gilbert's motivational style.There's also an incredibly raunchy sex scene that I was not expecting at all.

One criticism is that I didn't really feel like I ever got to know Ruth the same way I got to know Alma from The Signature of All Things. There was very little inner dialogue, Gilbert rarely wrote Ruth as vulnerable or scared of the future, or shared any of her insecurities with us. I feel like this would have deepened the novel a bit for me.

me with an actual Canadian lobster boat from a trip visiting Meghan in New Brunswick

I would still recommend this book, especially if you enjoy Gilbert's books. I would suggest The Signature of All Things above this one, but Stern Men is definitely the easier read of the two. I still prefer Gilbert's non-fiction and I'm excited for a future read of The Last American Man, which Meghan just reviewed here. I'm headed to New Hampshire and Boston with Meghan and her sister next week and I'm excited to annoy them both the entire drive with my new knowledge of East Coast lobster fishing. I wanted to end this review with this amazing quote about a condition that I know will become the theme of our upcoming trip:

Some men in a lifeboat get a condition called 'shared delirium.' Let's say there are two men in a boat. They both lose their minds the same way. One man says, 'I'm going over to the tavern for a beer,' and steps over the side and drowns. The second man says, 'I'll join you, Ed,' and then he steps over the side and drowns too."


  1. I love the quotes you posted. Makes me want to read it, too (and I'm not one for memoir-style fiction).
    Do you think the lack of introspection on Ruth's behalf reflects her outlook that resulted from being with the lobstermen?