Monday, June 4, 2007

Ernest Hebert and The Dogs of March

Have you ever loved a book or a movie so much, you’ve insisted that a good friend borrow it, knowing they’ll love it as much as you do? Had a childhood friend come to visit and you couldn't wait to introduce him or her to your current friends? Back in the early 80’s I read a book called The Dogs of March and although the original copy I had was loaned out and never returned, I bought another copy several years ago because I wanted to be able to read it again any time I had the urge. It’s like one of those books Judy Merrill Larsen posted about several weeks ago. I’ve probably read the book a half dozen times. It’s an old friend.

Ernest Hebert teaches writing at Dartmouth College. In 1979 he published The Dogs of March, the first in a series of six novels that take place in the fictional town of Darby, New Hampshire. I am currently reading Spoonwood. Published in 2005, Spoonwood is the final book in the Darby series. Hebert published Mad Boys in 1993. The Old American, published in 2000 was a departure from the contemporary setting of his previous works and takes place during the French and Indian Wars. Kirkus Reviews called it “a brilliant work, destined to be one of the great American historical novels.”

Hebert has been honored with numerous writing awards. United Press International honored him with three journalism awards when he was a reporter for The Keene Sentinel in Keene, New Hampshire. The Dogs of March, was cited for excellence by the Hemingway Foundation. The New Hampshire Writers Project named Mad Boys the best novel by a New Hampshire author in 1993 and the same honor went to The Old American in 2001. In 2002, he received the Sarah Josepha Hale Award for lifetime achievement by a New England author. Spoonwood was the IPPY award winner for Regional fiction in the Northeast in 2005.

In September of 2006 The New England Booksellers Association named Hebert their Fiction Author of the Year.

Reviewers have noted that in Darby, Ernest Hebert has created New Hampshire’s own version of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Howard Elman, the main character in The Dogs of March, and a recurring character in the series is a working man, ignorant in many ways through his near illiteracy. He becomes unemployed, and without health insurance early in the story when the factory he’s worked in all his life is sold and the jobs and machinery are moved south. He finds himself in a battle against change and in conflict with the new people moving into the area who have “college degrees and big bank accounts.” Zoe Cutter is the newcomer who’s bought the property adjacent to Howard Elman’s forty acres. Zoe has come from the city with plenty of money and ideas about turning the property into an idyllic New England landscape, and running a country boutique. The junk cars and abandoned machinery that are eyesores to Zoe are as much a part of the landscape to Howard as the trees and the stone walls.

Hebert was probably the first (and may remain the only) author to masterfully, elegantly and genuinely create Granite State natives, working class people, as complete characters not just as caricatures of the stereotypical New England Yankee, used to backdrop bigger stories.

I have a special place in my heart for the Darby series. I was born and raised primarily in and around Boston, but I lived in the area of New Hampshire where the story takes place for a brief time and visited my father there for the last 25 or more years of his life.

When I think about why The Dogs of March has endured for nearly 30 years, why it remains in print and why I find it as true and relevant now as I did when I first read it, I believe it’s because beneath the well drawn characters, the intimate sense of place, and the taut, compelling plot, flowing throughout the story and elevating it to literature is a theme about insiders and outsiders. What has often been called regional fiction isn’t regional at all. This is a universal story.

Immigration issues have been big news since the first Europeans set foot on this continent and displaced the Native Americans. In rural areas, the insiders are the working poor and middle class and the outsiders are the affluent. These areas have changed, sometimes gradually and sometimes rapidly by development that has displaced the original insiders. In urban and suburban areas, often the dynamic is reversed. The insiders are the middle class, who feel their lives and culture are being disrupted by those in the lower socio-economic rung of the class ladder. We live in a largely transient culture now where one can start out as a newcomer and outsider and eventually become an insider – without changing addresses. Changes around the world have made this a global issue. The insider and outsider theme carries into our psyches and how we feel among our friends, families, neighbors and co-workers and they with us. We’re always shifting our roles between insider and outsider.

Ernest Hebert’s website is a wealth of fascinating insight into his writing process and tells the story of how he came to be a fiction writer. One of my favorite pieces is an essay called “How John Gardner Kicked My Ass and Saved My Soul”. He provides us with insight into where Howard Elman came from, how his own working class and immigrant roots informed his work and even how he came to name his characters. You can also hear an audio interview with the author at New Hampshire Public Radio and read a number of reviews of his work by doing a search on Ernest Hebert or Ernie Hebert.

If you know his work, I’d love to hear from you. If you’ve got a favorite author that isn’t widely known, please share what it is about his or her writing that you love. If you have thoughts on the insider versus outsider – native versus newcomer theme, I’d love to hear those too.

A lot of the authors I love are household names. Ernest Hebert is not as widely known, but he is one of my favorites and may turn out to be one of the best writers you’ve never heard of -- yet.


Scott Mattlin said...


Although not dealing with many areas of personal interest (to me), other than the immigration/insider-outsider phenomenon;...I can certainly recognize an unusually insightful, and well-written article when I read one.

This one feels PARTICULARLY well-written; and your ability to express ideas, both profound, and those of passing fancy continue to impress. You are one of the most articulate and thoughtful people that I know.!

PS: I took out the recycling bins and trash:) Love, -Scott

Judy Merrill Larsen said...


Thanks for sharing this author--from your description, I have a hunch I'll love it. One of the authors I love is Wallace Stegner--particularly his novel Crossing to Safety. I love it in part because of its connection to Madison, WI--a town I adopted as my hometown--but also with the way he explores adult couple friendships. His prose is lyrical and there are pages where I just have to stop and reread and savor.

Beryl Singleton Bissell said...

Until I read your blog Lisa, I did not know about this book or this author, but as Scott said, yours is an extremely thoughtful and well written presentation. I will keep my eyes open for Ernest Herbert's work and shall see if I can obtain a copy of The Dogs of March. Thanks Lisa!

Lisa said...


Since creating beautiful paintings is your thing and you're most inclined to read non-fiction, I understand where you are coming from, but I do thank you for your very kind words about the post -- and, for taking out the trash :-)


I think that you especially will enjoy his work. As a matter of fact, Ernest Hebert studied fiction under Wallace Stegner at Stanford and I think you'll find his prose very beautiful.


I think Google Books will actually let you read quite a big excerpt from the book. If you have time to take a look at his website -- which is really all about writing -- I think it will give you a very good idea about him as a writer. I wrote him a letter several weeks ago and he was kind enough to respond with an email. He told me he'd created the web site a couple of years back in html and it hasn't been updated because he's sort of forgotten how to get in there and edit things. I'm hoping he gets it figured out and that he'll continue to add to it. Thank you for stopping by Beryl.

Larramie said...

Excuse me, Lisa, but I'm still chuckling over Scott "taking out the trash." Very thoughtful! ;o)

One of my favorite authors is Tim Farrington who I first found by reading The Monk Downstairs. He writes realistically about relationships and everyday lives, making the reader feel a part of that dynamic.

On May 8th, The Monk Downstairs was published and I can't wait to enter that world again.

Lisa said...

That's Scott -- I never know what he'll say or do next. It's one of the many things I love about him :-)

I also love new recommendations - first because who doesn't love to discover a new gem and second because knowing the books people love often tells me more about them in an instant just about anything else does. I read the first couple of pages on line and you've got me hooked -- also FWIW, the back cover describes it as very Anne Tyler-esque, which I thought was apt and helpful. I love her. It's VERY interesting this book should come up within a day of learning about Beryl Singleton Bissell and her memoir, The Scent of God. For anyone who missed it, Beryl was a guest blogger on Simply Wait, Patry Francis's wonderful blog. The Scent of God is about the author's experience entering a cloister at 18 -- and much more. If you haven't taken a look, go now! ;-)

Larramie said...

CORRECTION: The last sentence of my first comment should read: On May 8th, The Monk Upstairs was published....

N. Hyde said...

*adds yet another book to the Mt. Everest of book lists*


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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf