“Lavinia Wren and the Sailmakers” by Irene Drago is a moving historical drama about the importance of the sea in small towns of Maine and New England from 1865 to 1924, focusing on Thomaston, Maine. Like a fine tapestry it weaves many people into a story revealing the courage, endurance, and hardships of a community that makes its living from the sea.
In 1865 the art of building ships and sails were the key industries that provided a strong economy in Thomaston, a coastal New England town, where everyone knew each other and when the bell rang at the local prison the town knew a prisoner had been hanged. The novel is a work of fiction but real people and events are folded into the story to highlight Thomaston’s shipbuilding history. While the characters represent the author’s imagination, places—the sail loft, local streets, the prison, Boston Harbor, the South Street Seaport, Brooklyn Heights, and the original campus of Colby College along the Kennebec River—are accurately described. For example, the Dunn & Elliot Sail Loft still stands on Thomaston’s waterfront. The Dunn & Elliot Company was the mainstay of the community, like the Pepperell Mills of Biddeford, the Dana Warp Mill of Westbrook, and the Sappi factory of Jay, Maine. In fact, the author’s note thanks the descendants of D&E for providing information on the history of their company as well as the growth of the town of Thomaston.
Some of the characters introduced in the beginning of the book are traced throughout the book, including Lavinia Wren, an orphan living with her aunt and uncle, and Amelia Counce, the daughter of a prominent ship carver. Another important figure is Gray Rowley, a sailor on the Sunbeam who gives up the sea to become a sailmaker. James Sutton also sails on the Sunbeam but, unlike Gray, he vows to never give up the sea. However, it is Charles Ranlett Flint, the son of a prominent shipbuilder, who surprises us the most. Following the growth of these five characters, and the growth of shipbuilding in Maine, is the focal point of the story.
As the story unfolds in 1865, Charles Flint’s family moves their shipping business to New York, and Charlie goes off to Brooklyn Polytechnic to further his studies, but he writes to Lavinia and comes home to see her on holidays and in the summer. Lavinia, who is called “Vinnie” for short, is one of the first five women to attend Colby College and finds it challenging to study on a predominantly male campus. She is a modern woman, though, and carries on, writing a thought-provoking paper on women incarcerated at the state prison. She later helps female inmates by teaching them how to hook rugs—a creative art form at that time.
Lavinia’s friendships and love triangles are captivating. Even though Lavinia and her hometown friends move in different directions, they remain connected. Perhaps it’s their love and loyalty that makes this maritime history come alive. The novel reflects six decades of personal and societal change. From 1865, right after the Civil war, to 1924, just after women got the right to vote, is an amazing span of history. That’s the magnitude of change reflected in this novel.
The writing is warm and intimate, making history come alive through the eyes of the characters who become our friends. We begin to know them and find out that the struggles Lavinia and her family face are timeless. They must accept change both socially and scientifically as advancements in shipbuilding emerge and touch us all. Seeing the maritime history of Maine grow and change through the personal struggles of people in the novel make history personal.
This book is important because America was built by small towns like Thomaston, Maine, and by the ship and sail making industry that allowed us to trade with ports around the world. We often read about pioneers who moved West in our nation, but the first pioneers who expanded our nation were the pioneers of the sea, the sailors and captains of New England who braved the unknown mysteries of the ocean to improve commerce globally. If you love the sea and reading about its maritime history, you will love this novel about the coast of Maine, the Town of Thomaston, and the growth of shipbuilding and sail making in America.
—Pat Davidson Reef, literary critic/columnist, award-winning author of Dahlov Ipcar/Artist, Bernard Langlais Revisited, and David C. Driskell: Artist, Educator, Author