Book Review: “Alternative Lives” by Roger D. Skillings

Alternative Lives is the first short story collection by Bath-native Roger D. Skillings. In it, the author reflects on the homes, families, and acquaintances of a fictionalized youth in Long Reach, Maine. The characters, boys and men, are coming of age in the mid-20th century, in a world their elders don’t recognize. They are curious, detached, and moral—with damning exceptions.

The stories share a sense of trouble, mystery, and loss, often fueled by the grown-ups’ gossip around a comfortable family hearth. In “The Agent,” a realtor struggles to evict an aged friend who continues to occupy the mansion he just sold to an up-and-coming capitalist. In “Before the Funeral,” a young boy overhears the ancient secret of his great aunt, deceased after a century in hiding. “The River” is about a poet trapped by an impenetrable belief in his own mind, who falls tragically in love. In each story, time passes, people live and die, and a familiar place is expertly constructed. Out-of-town settings are treacherous and bewildering. In “The Sons of Abolition,” a draft dodger is embarrassed by his bigoted bunkmates at a Mississippi Air Force base. In “They,” the racism of two Mainers in Boston brings tragedy.

Alternative Lives was published in 1974, with six more collections and two novels to follow. Later stories focus on Provincetown, Massachusetts, where the author lived most of his life, beloved by the local arts community. Skillings passed away in Provincetown on January 15, 2020. 

Patten Free Library’s copy of Alternative Lives was recently donated by Skillings’ longtime friend and Morse High School classmate, Malcolm Hamilton. The book is a fascinating reflection of our town in a time of great change.

Book review by Jill Piekut Roy, Archivist and Special Collections Librarian.

To request a copy, click here.

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