An article on author Carolyn Chute in yesterday's Style section should have said she grew up in a suburb of Portland, Maine, not Portland, Ore. (Published 01/04/2000)
Carolyn Chute, best-selling novelist and militia leader, lives off a dirt road way out in the woods of western Maine. She directs visitors to the place with a multicolored hand-drawn map that labels landmarks along the road--"big old place" and "very sharp curve" and "woods" and "trailer" and "cemetery with about 40 bodies."
Not far from that cemetery is the wooden house she shares with her husband, Michael, who works as caretaker of the local graveyards. "Around our house," she wrote on the map, "are a lot of red trucks. And black dogs."
Today, the dogs are yapping. A faded old car door is propped against a pine tree, and out past the dog pen is the Chutes' wooden one-holer privy.
On one wall in the house, an American flag is covered by the flag of the Border Mountain Militia, which Chute founded a few years ago. A rack in the corner holds a half-dozen rifles. The refrigerator is decorated with signs Chute scrawled: "School Stinks," "Doubt Everything" and "With Mass Production Came the Death of The Soul."
Chute, 52, sits in a rocking chair, sipping tea. As always, she's dressed in old work boots, a long denim skirt, a faded red plaid work shirt patched with a scrap of gray cloth. Her long brown hair is crowned with an old red bandanna. She smiles warmly and rocks vigorously and points to two tall piles of paper on a nearby table. It's a copy of the typed manuscript of her fifth novel, "The School on Heart's Content Road." Several other copies are floating around Manhattan, where her agent and her editor say it's her best book yet.
"That's it--2,000 pages!" She says with a laugh, and her blue eyes light up mischievously. "It's about the militia and why people get involved and what happens when you get there."
She's got company this morning. A couple of militia members dropped by unexpectedly--Kevin and Jenny, who are nervous about having their last names appear in the newspaper. Years ago, Chute posted a plywood sign in the driveway turning visitors away so she could write in peace. But a militia should be a family, she says, so she encourages members to stop by any time they want to talk.
And now Kevin's talking. He's a middle-aged guy wearing camouflage pants and a ball cap. He says he's a Vietnam vet suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He says he used to work installing electrical equipment but he quit: "I got tired of being treated like a slave."
Carolyn and Michael and Jenny join in, shooting the breeze about what's gone wrong in Maine and the rest of America: The textile mills have moved away in search of cheap labor . . . new environmental regulations prevent the average guy from making money logging . . . family farms are being gobbled up by agribusiness . . . the state busts people for growing pot and then confiscates their houses if they won't rat on their friends.
It's fascism--"the total merging of government and business," Chute says. That's why people need to form militias to defend their way of life--the family, the farm, the community, the tribe.
"We have to be prepared to fight our government when it gets a little funky," she says.
Most militiamen might sound scary talking like that. But not Chute. Sipping tea and bobbing back and forth in her rocker, she looks like somebody's grandmother in a faded photograph from another century.
Full of Grit
Carolyn Chute became famous back in 1985 when she published her first novel, "The Beans of Egypt, Maine."
It's a book about poor people living deep in the Maine woods--women with "scarred, hard fingers" and too many children; men with pine tar on their hands, black-fly bites on their ankles and doughnut crumbs in their scraggly beards; kids running barefoot in snow scorched black by the exhaust of idling logging trucks.
They're people she knows.
Although she grew up in a middle-class suburb of Portland, Ore., daughter of an electrical supply salesman, she soon fell into a tougher world. She quit high school at 16, married a guy who worked at a bread factory, gave birth to a daughter. After a divorce, she worked on a farm and in factories, packing chicken parts and stapling buckles on shoes. She hated the work but she liked the workers, who were mostly country folks, and she started writing stories about them.
In the mid-'70s, she enrolled at the University of Southern Maine, and got a job in a school laboratory. Feeling sorry for the lab rats, she took them home, where they showed their gratitude by chewing holes in her bedsheets.
Ken Rosen taught creative writing and he remembers her as his most creative student. "She was writing about rural poor people, Maine people, from an angle I'd never seen before," he recalls, "looking up at them instead of looking down on them."
Chute dropped out of college and worked part time as a stringer for a Portland newspaper, specializing in feature stories on rural characters.
One New Year's Eve, she drew up a description of her ideal man: He'd have a black beard, green work pants, plaid work shirt, a pickup truck with fishing stickers on it. He'd love guns but wouldn't hunt because he loved animals more.
She painted an oil portrait of this perfect man and showed it to acquaintances--a kind of artistic personals ad--and then one day, she spotted him at a shooting match. His name was Michael Chute. He was seven years younger than she. He worked in a junkyard. He was illiterate. They married in 1978.
She got pregnant but they were too poor to pay doctors, and her son died at birth. She was devastated but she kept writing, turning out stories about a fictitious backwoods family called the Beans, who were poor and ignorant but full of grit and fecund as bunnies.
In the early '80s, Rosen organized a writers' conference in Portland and Chute showed up with her stories. They impressed two novelists teaching at the conference, George Garrett and Madison Smartt Bell.
"It was such a ferociously original style," Bell recalls. "And there was a crazy humor to it that I enjoyed very much."
Bell and Garrett touted Chute to their agent, who sold her novel to Houghton Mifflin. "The Beans of Egypt, Maine" caused an immediate sensation. Reviewers loved Chute's novel: "We are present at the birth of a great American artist," said the Boston Globe. And feature writers loved Chute's colorful life story: Poor 37-year-old grandmother married to an illiterate backwoodsman writes literary novel! The book became a bestseller, ultimately selling more than a half-million copies.
She spent her royalties on a half-finished house on 17 acres of scrubby woods near Michael's home town in the foothills of the White Mountains. There, she wrote a second novel, "Letourneau's Used Auto Parts," the story of a junkyard owner who takes in castoff humans the way Chute used to take in castoff lab rats. Then she wrote "Merry Men," a fat, sprawling saga that Bell calls "one of the very few books from the end of our century that will be worth remembering."
Both novels won rave reviews but neither sold even a tenth as many copies as "The Beans." Slowly the Chutes slipped back into poverty. Last year they mortgaged their land to pay for food, and the prospect of losing their home clearly terrifies them.
Meanwhile, Chute was back in the news, this time for forming a militia group that stormed the Maine State House.
The 'Nice' Militia
It's probably the only militia in history that was conceived at an art colony.
Chute sips tea and rocks back and forth and tells the story. "I was at the McDowell Colony, and I was listening to Noam Chomsky tapes . . ."
McDowell is a New Hampshire art colony where she frequently goes to write in peace. Chomsky is a linguistics professor at MIT and a leftist cult hero for his critiques of international capitalism and the U.S. government. Chute listened to Chomsky's tapes and pondered how to bring his message to the people she knew back home. "I thought of doing a cartoon," she says.
One night she visited a friend who lives near McDowell, a waitress who moonlights butchering deer during the hunting season. Watching a bunch of folks cutting up deer, Chute noticed a hand-scrawled sign on the wall: "6 More to Make Lucille Smile." She asked, "Six more what? And who's Lucille?"
"Lucille's the tax collector," one guy explained, "and I need six more deer to pay the taxes." His deer money used to buy Christmas presents, he told her, but he couldn't afford Christmas anymore. Prices went up and so did taxes, but his pay didn't keep pace and now he had no medical insurance.
"And he says, 'It's enough to make you want to join the militia--but they're so weird,' " she recalls. "So I said, 'Well, why don't you make one that isn't weird? Why don't you make one that's nice?' "
That night, she sat in her cabin at McDowell, thinking about Chomsky and the deer butchers, and she decided to start a militia. Not a racist right-wing militia--and not a left-wing militia, either. It would be a "no-wing" militia, a nice militia that would bring poor people together to fight corporate power. She figured it would be a great way to organize farmers, loggers, mill workers, people who don't like going to meetings but might show up if you called the group a militia and did some target shooting.
"If you say militia, it's almost like packaging," she says, laughing. "They're interested. They ask questions and I can throw something in about the World Trade Organization."
In January 1996, she invited the public to her house to form a militia. Despite an ice storm, about 30 people showed up. A second meeting attracted 100, including a couple dozen reporters and TV cameramen.
A few months later, Chute led her troops to the State House in Augusta. She made a short speech. Michael wore a Revolutionary War uniform and waved a Maine flag. About a hundred supporters swarmed the State House, confronting legislators and taping up signs: "Smash Corporate Tyranny."
"We had everybody up there--bikers, old ladies, left-wingers, right-wingers, guys worried about black helicopters," she says. "It was very cool."
Her literary friends were less enthusiastic, viewing Chute's militia activities with, as Bell puts it, "head-shaking, tongue-clicking tolerance, leavened with greater or lesser degrees of nervousness."
Rosen declined to join his former student's militia, but he says he understands why she organized it. "To her, it represents a way to get in touch with the people she writes about," he says. "They don't read books, and the militia enables her to exert some kind of leadership and be a focus for people who find life daunting."
Chute has no TV, no computer and no indoor toilet but she does have a copy machine, and she keeps it humming, bombarding militia members with a steady stream of mail--leaflets, crudely drawn cartoons and photocopied newspaper clips with her comments scrawled in the margins.
One series of leaflets is called "Dear Revolutionary Abby." Printed on colored paper, it's decorated with a crude drawing of a smiling woman who looks a bit like Chute. She holds an American flag and answers political questions from fictitious people with denunciations of big business and big government and praise for small communities, solar energy, tribal society.
"We need to burn down all the schools. These are the total institutions of industrialism and capitalism," Chute wrote in one leaflet. "Get rid of all Capitalist TV, RADIO, NEWSPAPERS. Go underground for your information. . . . Meet with your neighbors. Talk about building a windmill together or solar heat and electricity. . . . Spend as much time as you can in silence. Look at the way the sun paints the ground gold. Listen to the wind. . . . Form citizens militias. Camo, jokes, food, gentleness, listening to each other, recreating a tribe, a little target shooting, patience, anger directed at THE SYSTEM, compassion for the tribe. The Tribe. The Tribe. The Tribe."
Reading, Writing, Shooting
The tall skinny guy with the long ponytail holds up a rifle. "This won more revolutions than any gun in history," he says, smiling.
It's a Remington .22 and he's a little vague about just which revolutions it won. Probably not as many as the AK-47 that another guy's toting.
They're militia supporters and they've taken Chute to a gravel pit outside Lincoln for some target shooting. Lincoln is a paper mill town--"Stinkin' Lincoln," it's called by outsiders offended by the odor--and several of these guys work in the mill. One of them, Robert Stewart, 50, invited Chute to town, arranging for a reading at the library.
This morning, she did the reading, passing out some of her homemade leaflets and signing copies of her books, decorating her autograph with hearts and smiley faces. Now, she's standing in the cold drizzle, watching guys shoot at a metal plate propped against a pile of gravel.
A pudgy retiree in a NAPA auto parts windbreaker starts telling her how America went wrong. "When they took the little man off the farm and put him in the mill," he says, "that was the worst thing that ever happened."
She nods in agreement. But when he starts denouncing welfare, she tells him the real problem is corporate welfare. And when he says it takes more than one parent to raise kids, she says it takes more than two--you need grandparents, aunts and uncles, an extended family, a tribe.
"Oh, it takes a village," one guy says, grinning, and the others laugh. Hillary Clinton isn't too popular in this crowd.
Stewart and the other guys invite Chute to fire a few rounds, but she says she'd rather chat. They keep shooting, while comparing guns and talking politics. Conspiracy theories abound. One guy says the United Nations has a plan to turn most of Maine into some kind of nature refuge. Stewart says he heard that pilots flying over America have spotted 43 secret concentration camps built in remote areas, ready to hold patriots after the crackdown comes.
The bumper sticker on his pickup says, "The Meek Shall Inherit the Gulag."
Robert Drummond, a militiaman from Maine, forces the senator to his knees, then points his pistol at the base of the man's skull. "Die," he says. Then he fires. Twice.
After killing that senator, he goes hunting for another. Wounded, he collapses in the second senator's carriage house on Boston's Beacon Hill. Incredibly, he's taken in by the senator's wife and daughter. They nurse him back to health. He beats them at chess and Scrabble. They argue about politics and feminism. He charms them and ends up in bed with each of them, although not at the same time. Meanwhile, the FBI is closing in . . .
Drummond is the main character in Chute's fourth novel, "Snow Man," published last spring. The reviews were brutal. "Farfetched," said the Seattle Times. "Absurd and rather ugly," said the New York Times. "One of the worst books I've ever read," said the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Even her editor, Cork Smith, says he found the plot a tad tough to believe. "Why wouldn't the daughter call the cops?" he asks.
"It's a fable," Chute explains. "All my work is kind of fable-ish."
Traditionally, fables have morals. And the moral of "Snow Man," she says, is this: "When people do come face to face with each other as human beings, they begin to understand each other better."
She doesn't endorse Drummond's violence but she does understand it. "People can be driven to be cold when they have to protect their family and in his mind that's what he's doing and maybe he's right," she says. "Every time I think I know what's right and wrong, I end up being wrong. All I want to do is explore. I want to see what people would do. I say, 'What would this person do in this situation?' and I write it down. I'm not writing manifestos of my political views."
'We Went Without . . .'
"We're all scared," says Michael Chute.
"I'm scared," Carolyn Chute says.
Scared of what?
"Where you gonna be living tomorrow?" Michael asks. "In jail? On the street?"
"We're losing everything," Carolyn says. "We're gonna lose this house. How are we gonna pay the loan? 'Snow Man' didn't sell. The next advance I get probably won't even cover the loan on this house."
"We starved to death," Michael says. "We went without, trying to make the money stretch. Her advances were less each time. My pay never goes up working at the graveyard."
They're sitting in their living room. Carolyn's rocking back and forth. Michael's got one of the dogs on his lap. He's wearing a camouflage jacket and a battered orange cowboy hat. His billy-goat beard hangs halfway down his chest.
"The whole thing is just rotten," he says. "It has been rotten a long time. I can get going on this. I'm real sour on the system. I don't know how to read and write. I went through the school system and they made me feel like an idiot in front of my friends: 'This guy don't know how to read and write. You don't want to be like this guy, ha ha ha.' "
He has dyslexia, his wife explains.
"If you don't know how to read and write, you're just trash," he says. "But I got talents they don't have. I'm an artist."
He points to a table where his drawings are displayed. They're all variations on the same theme--a hairy face that's sometimes a dog, sometimes a bearded man. He calls it his "Dog-Man army." He's got dozens more tucked away in a drawer.
"No matter how hard I tried [to read], it wasn't doing it," he says. "So it turned around on me, like I'm a weirdo, I'm bad."
"So now he has post-traumatic stress disorder," Carolyn says, "and he's so crippled by depression that he can't even farm. He spends 50 or 60 percent of the day paralyzed in his chair, sitting there. It would be nice if he could grow the garden and do some of the work around here while I do this writing, but he's been wrecked by the school system. He gets some disability now because of it, but how does that make him feel? People around here call that welfare."
"It's only 500 bucks," Michael says.
The militia has helped him cope with all this, he claims. "To me, that's what the militia is all about--folks that were tossed out. We say"--he turns his voice into a parody of gruff machismo--" 'Yeah, we're the militia! Yeah, give 'em hell!' " He goes back to his normal voice. "We sit around and we bitch."
"The kitchen militia," Carolyn says, laughing. "And then we do an action and we do it all together--"
"And then we go back out in the world and we get beat down again," Michael grumbles.
"No!" Carolyn says. "When we go out in the world together, we don't get beat down. You meant separately."
Michael says he used to hide the fact that he was illiterate, but he doesn't hide it from the guys in the militia. "I can tell them," he says. "These folks are just like us, just like us."
Carolyn agrees. Even the bigoted guys with the macho bluster, they're really not so bad: "When you get to talking to them, you realize they're just scared people like everybody else."
Carolyn loves the militia. She says it keeps her sane. "I get so upset about what's going on in the world. But when I'm with the militia, I feel better. . . . I love the people. I am nourished by the militia. I couldn't give it up."
CAPTION: Carolyn Chute and her husband, Michael, at their home in Maine. "Every time I think I know what's right and wrong," she says, "I end up being wrong. All I want to do is explore."
CAPTION: The best-selling writer ("The Beans of Egypt, Maine") and one of her dogs.
CAPTION: Carolyn and Michael Chute in their home in western Maine, where they formed a militia to bring poor people together to fight corporate power.