Her daughter has written to tell me Elzada passed on, and I have been doubly enriched as a friend of the two wonderful Elzadas, the real one and the fictional Elzada I invented. I elucidate this contradiction: Will the real Elzada please stand?
In 1924 I was a Maine 4-H club champion, as were other boys and girls of Health, Heart, Hand, and Head, and in company we went by train to the Eastern States Exposition
in Springfield, Mass., as our reward. Elzada Nickerson was the bread-baking champ from Brooks, Maine. I had never heard the name Elzada, and as we met boarding the train I asked her where her mother had found the name. She said she never knew, but
always supposed it was biblical. But there is no Elzada in the Good Book. I kept in touch with Elzada over the years; she married and we sent holiday cards but I was always mindful of her unique (as far as I know) name.
Then maybe 20 years ago my wife spoke to me about like this: "Why in the world don't you write a decent novel that's fit to read? These books are trash!" And so on and so forth.
And I did. I thought about it long and well. I thought about a beautiful farm on the Maine seacoast, halfway between Boston and Halifax, where history flourished. It was 500 acres of meadowland circled by Morning River before it flows into the tide. A dream spot with all of North America west'ard, and only the Azores east'ard.
I am not a novelist, and my short essays are no aid in trying to be. But I have read "The Moonstone," "Moby Dick," "Robinson Crusoe," and the like, and I consider Aristotle important. I think a novel should have substance and dignity. It should have an acceptable theme and carry a message. Its content should be important and the revelation lofty. Most of all, it should have pleasing language and be reasonably amusing. I set to work.
My novel is a trilogy, and the three books have been published as "No Other Place" (1984), "The Wines of Pentagoët" (1986), and "Our Croze Nest" (1997). Only the reluctance of publishers to sell books has kept them out of bookstores. I think they are good. They tell how Maine was settled, enjoyed as a homeland, and sold to summer folks. They leave you with the open question of what happens to Maine and its people when it is wholly owned by summercaters "from away."
The lady throughout my three books is Elzada. Not the 4-H club girl of 1924, but just her name. I invented her except for the name. She is beautiful, self-taught far beyond likelihood, competent in French and English. And were it not for my Elzada, Maine would be a Canadian province.
The real Elzada knew all about this and was not unhappy. I had good fun. At one place I caused Elzada to own a black slave. Maine was not a slave state. But my Elzada lived at Morning River on the trade-schooner route to the West Indies. A young black girl happened by, and Elzada befriended her. Manumitted, the girl married Manny the Portagee and went with him to the Madeleine Islands in Canada, where Manny was a pirate. They lived there happily ever after. That's what the story says, anyway.
I had trouble keeping history available to Elzada. She was hard to work into the five-nation conference about Queen Anne's War (1702-13). Because of an early run of hake that had to be corned that same day, and the need to take the Jersey heifer by sloop to Halifax for matrimonial purposes, Elzada almost missed the conference. But she was there, and presided graciously at the lobster banquet and opening session. That was the occasion when the Baron Castine came to Morning River Farm as Papal Intermediary.
Elzada's father built boats, repaired boats, and sold lumber from his sawmill to other boatwrights. So he had money and Elzada used some to buy books from Boston. During her girlhood she made up a considerable library. This filled several rooms of her father's big house, and almost every passing vessel in the West Indies trade brought another box of books. She also had a telescope for studying the stars.
The real Elzada wrote one time to say I was the best thing that ever happened to her.