Ernie's Ark

Ernie's Ark

by Monica Wood


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The paper mill looms up from the riverbank in Abbott Falls, Maine, a town once drenched with ordinary hopes and dreams, now praying for a small drop of good fortune. Ernie Whitten, a pipe fitter, was three weeks away from a pension-secured retirement when the union went on strike eight months ago. Now his wife Marie is ill. Struck with sudden inspiration, Ernie builds a giant ark in his backyard. It is a work of art for his wife; a vessel to carry them both away; or a plea for God to spare Marie, come hell or high water. As the ark takes shape, the rest of the town carries on. There’s Dan Little, a building-code enforcer who comes to fine Ernie for the ark and makes a significant discovery about himself; Francine Love, a precocious thirteen-year-old who longs to be a part of the family-like world of the union workers; and Atlantic Pulp & Paper CEO Henry John McCoy, an impatient man wearily determined to be a good father to his twenty-six-year-old daughter. The people of Abbott Falls will try their best to hold a community together, against the fiercest of odds. . . .

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345477163
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/28/2004
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.45(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.57(d)

About the Author

Monica Wood is the author of the novels My Only Story (0-8118-2714-3) and Secret Language. Her fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies and has been awarded a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Maine.

Read an Excerpt

Ernie’s Ark

Ernie Whitten was an angry man. He felt his anger as something apart from him, like an urn of water balanced on his head, a precarious weight that affected his gait, the set of his shoulders, his willingness to move through a crowd. He was angry at the melon-faced CEO from New York City who had forced a strike in a paper mill all the way up in Maine—a decision made, Ernie was sure, in that fancy restaurant atop the World Trade Center where Ernie had taken his wife, Marie, for their forty-fifth wedding anniversary last winter, another season, another life. Every Thursday as he stood in line at Manpower Services to wait for his unemployment check he thought of that jelly-assed CEO—Henry John McCoy, with his parted blond hair—yucking it up at a table laid out in bleached linen and phony silver, figuring out all the ways he could cut a man off at the knees three weeks before retirement.

Oh, yes, he was angry. At the deadbeats and no-accounts who stood in line with him: the Davis boy, who couldn’t look a man in the eye; the Shelton girl, with hair dyed so bright you could light a match on her ponytail. There were others in line—millwrights and tinsmiths and machine tenders whose years and labor had added up to a puff of air—but he couldn’t bear to look at them, so he reserved his livid stare for the people in line who least resembled himself.

He was angry at the kids from Broad Street who cut through his yard on their dirt bikes day after day, leaving moats of mud through the flowery back lawn Marie had sprinkled a season ago with Meadow-in-a-Can. He was angry with the police department, who didn’t give a hoot about Marie’s wrecked grass. He’d even tried city hall, where an overpaid blowhard, whose uncle had worked beside Ernie nineteen years ago on the Number Five, had all but laughed in his face.

When he arrived at the hospital after collecting his weekly check, Marie was being bathed by a teenaged orderly. He had seen his wife in all manner of undress over the years, yet it filled him with shame to observe the yellow hospital sponge applied to her diminishing body by a uniformed kid who was younger than their only grandchild. He went to the lobby to wait, picking up a newspaper from among the litter of magazines.

It was some sort of city weekly, filled with mean political cartoons and smug picture captions fashioned to embarrass the President, but it had a separate section on the arts, Marie’s favorite subject. She had dozens of coffee-table books stowed in her sewing room, and their house was filled with framed prints of strange objects—melted watches and spent shoelaces and sad, deserted diners—that he never liked but had nonetheless come to think of as old friends. He had never known her to miss a Community Concert or an exhibit at the library where she had worked three days a week since she was eighteen; every Sunday of their married life, Ernie had brought in the paper, laid it on the kitchen table, and fished out the arts section to put next to Marie’s coffee cup.

The weekly was printed on dirty newsprint—paper from out of state, he surmised. He scanned the cheap, see-through pages, fixing on an announcement for an installation competition, whatever that was. The winning entry would be displayed to the public at the college. Pictured was last year’s winner, a tangle of pipes and sheet metal that looked as if somebody had hauled a miniature version of the Number Five machine out of the mill, twisted it into a thousand ugly pieces, then left it to weather through five hundred hailstorms. Not that it would matter now if somebody did. The Burden of Life, this installation was called, by an artist who most likely hadn’t yet moved out of his parents’ house. He thought Marie would like it, though—she had always been a woman who understood people’s intentions—so he removed the picture with his jackknife and tucked it into his shirt pocket. Then he faltered his way back up the hall and into her room, where she was sitting up, weak and clean.

“What’s the latest?” she asked him.

He sat down on her bleach-smelling bed. She herself smelled of lilac. “McCoy’s threatening to fold up shop.”

“Sell it, you mean?” She blinked at him. “Sell the mill?”

“That’s the rumor.”

She put her fragile, ghostly hand on his. “It’s been eight months, Ernie. How long can a strike last?” She was thinking, of course, of his pension held hostage, the bills she was racking up.

“We’ll be all right,” he said. The word we always calmed him. He showed her the clipping. “Can you feature this?”

She smiled. “The Burden of Life?”

“He should’ve called it The Burden of My Big Head.”

She laughed, and he was glad, and his day took the tiniest turn. “Philistine,” she said. “You always were such a philistine, Ernie.” She often referred to him in the past tense, as if he were the one departing.

That night, after the long drive home, he hung the clipping on the refrigerator before taking Pumpkin Pie, Marie’s doddering Yorkshire terrier, for its evening walk. He often waited until nightfall for this walk, so mortified was he to drag this silly-name pushbroom of an animal at the end of a thin red leash. The dog walked with prissy little steps on pinkish feet that resembled ballerina slippers. He had observed so many men just like himself over the years, men in retirement walking wee, quivery dogs over the streets of their neighborhood, a wrinkled plastic bag in their free hand; they might as well have been holding a sign above their heads: Widower.

The night was eerie and silent. for sale signs had popped up even in this neighborhood of old people. This small, good place, once drenched with ordinary hopes and decent money, was beginning to furl like an autumn leaf. At the foot of the downhill slope of Randall Street, Ernie could see the belching smokestacks of Atlantic Pulp & Paper, the dove-gray plume curling up from the valley, an upward, omnipresent cloud rising like a smoke signal, an offering to God. Cancer Valley, a news reporter once called the city of Abbott Falls, but they needed the steam, the smoke, the rising cloud, the heaps and heaps of wood stacked in the railyard, even the smell—the smell of money, Ernie called it—they needed it. He thought of the son of a bitch working his very spot, this very night, wiping the greasy heat from his forehead; he wondered which of life’s cruelties had converged upon this man to impel him to cross a picket line, step over a man with a dying wife, and steal his job. Did he, too, have a dying wife? Eight months ago, watching the first of them marching in there under police guard, he could not have mustered a human feeling for the stranger hooking up chlorine cars or running pipe in the bleachery. Ernie’s own circumstances, his own livelihood, seemed to melt further into dream every day. Every few weeks there was word of negotiation—another fancy-restaurant meeting between McCoy’s boys and the national union—but Ernie held little hope of recovering the bulk of his pension. That, too, felt like knowledge found in a dream.

As he turned up his front walk, he caught the kids from Broad Street crashing again through his property, this time roaring away so fast he could hear a faint shudder from the backyard trees. “Sonsabitches!” he hollered, shaking his fist like the mean old man in the movies. He stampeded into the backyard, where Marie’s two apple trees, brittle and untrained, sprouted from the earth in such rootlike twists that they seemed to have been planted upside down. He scanned the weedy lawn, dotted with exhausted clumps of Marie’s wildflowers and the first of the fallen leaves, and saw blowdown everywhere, spindly parts of branches scattered like bodies on a battlefield. Planted when their son was born, the trees had never yielded a single decent apple, and now they were being systematically mutilated by a pack of ill-bred boys. He picked up a branch and a few sticks, and by the time he reached his kitchen he was weeping, pounding his fist on the table, cursing a God who would let a woman like Marie, a big-boned girl who was sweetness itself, wither beneath the death-white sheets of Western Maine General, thirty-eight miles from home.

He sat in the kitchen deep into evening. The dog curled up on Marie’s chair and snored. Ernie remembered Marie’s laughter from the afternoon and tried to harness it, hear it anew, make it last. The sticks lay sprawled and messy on the table in front of him, their leaves stalled halfway between greenery and dust. All of a sudden—and, oh, it was sweet!—Ernie had an artistic inspiration. He stood up with the shock of it, for he was not an artistic man. The sticks, put together at just the right angle, resembled the hull of a boat. He turned them one way, then another, admiring his idea, wishing Marie were here to witness it.

Snapping on the floodlights, he jaunted into the backyard to collect the remaining sticks, hauling them into the house a bouquet at a time. He took the clipping down from the fridge and studied the photograph, trying to get a sense of scale and size. Gathering the sticks, he descended the stairs to the cellar, where he spent most of the night twining sticks and branches with electrical wire. The dog sat at attention, its wet eyes fixed on Ernie’s work. By morning the installation was finished. It was the most beautiful thing Ernie had ever seen.

The college was only four blocks from the hospital, but Ernie had trouble navigating the maze of one-way roads on campus, and found the art department only by following the directions of a frightening girl whose tender lips had been pierced with small gold rings. By the time he entered the lavender art office, he was sweating, hugging his beautiful boat to his chest.

“Excuse me?” said a young man at the desk. This one had a hoop through each eyebrow.

“My installation,” Ernie said, placing it on the desk. “For the competition.” He presented the newspaper clipping like an admission ticket.

“Uh, I don’t think so.”

Reading Group Guide

1. Trace the presence of the ark through the nine stories of Ernie’s Ark. Does its meaning shift depending on the narrator or point-of-view character? Is the ark present even in a story in which it is never mentioned?

2. What does the ark mean? Is Abbott Falls about to be swallowed up? Or is something more subtle at work in
Monica Wood’s imagery?

3. Another presence in each story is Abbott Falls, of course.
What is the role of place in Ernie’s Ark? How do you imagine the town? How is it different from your own? How the same?
How does Abbott Falls shape the events of the book?

4. What is the role of the mill in these stories? Is it the same role that that major employer plays in the town itself? Or does the mill take on literary dimensions, as well? Similarly, what is the role of the strike in these stories? Does it affect every character, or only a few? If there were no strike, how would the stories of Ernie’s Ark be different?

5. How does Ernie’s character shift from story to story? How are the perceptions of the various narrators and lead characters involved in our own perceptions as we read? How would the book be altered if each story were narrated from Ernie’s point of view?

6. Dan Little, the narrator of “The Temperature of Desire,” starts out depressed. How is his depression tied up with the reality of life in Abbott Falls? Does anything happen in the story to change him?

7. In “The Joy Business,” we get ample indications that a lot more goes on in Abbott Falls than strikes and ark building.
How does this story expand your vision of the town? How does it expand the scope of the book? What is the effect of its placement just so in the middle of the book?

8. In “Visitors” we meet Ernie’s son, James, and get a glimpse of a major sea change between generations. How is it possible that James’s sense of life and possibilities could be so different from his father’s? Or are the two men so different after all?

9. Much of “Take Care Good Boy” transpires away from Abbott
Falls, and away from Ernie and his ark. How does the story fit into the book as a whole? How does it expand the vision of the book?

10. How does the character Francine grow and change from
“Take Care Good Boy” to “Solidarity Is Not a Floor”? What is
Ernie’s effect on her? What is her effect on Ernie?

11. Think ten years ahead for the characters of Ernie’s Ark. Where do you think each will be? What will the town of Abbott
Falls be like then? What current differences did you pick out among characters who you think will grow, characters who you think will stagnate, characters who you think will fail? If your group disagrees, what are the sources of your disagreement?

12. Have a look at each story title in turn, and discuss the meaning of each in context of the story and in context of the whole book. For example, what exactly does the title
“Solidarity Is Not a Floor” mean?

13. Ernie’s Ark is beautifully written. Have everyone in your group pick a passage—perhaps a page or so—to read aloud.
Then see if you can articulate what exactly makes the passage sing.

14. Monica Wood says that “At the Mercy” was a stretch for her to write, because its lead character is a successful and wellgrounded
CEO. Is Henry John McCoy any less interesting as a character than Ernie himself? Do you find yourself interested in the problems of a CEO?

15. The title story of Ernie’s Ark ends with Ernie and his wife
“waiting for rain,” clearly a metaphor. See if your group can articulate or even agree upon what exactly the couple is waiting for.

Customer Reviews

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Ernie's Ark 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 47 reviews.
MJ Clough More than 1 year ago
I could not put this book down. Each story, though connected, stands on its own and draws you further and further into the town of Abbott Falls. Kudos to the small Portland Me bookstore that helped me discover Monica Wood!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was really enjoying the first chapter. Then, as soon as I started chapter two, the g-d word started. I can put up with a LOT, as far as language, but that one I CANNOT abide. There is no reason for it. I wish BN would warn the readers about language, as some of us are sensitive to it and do not want to spend good money supporting disrespectful garbage like that. I am VERY disappointed.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am not usually a fan of short stories, but the way these stories are all interwoven makes it and excellent, interesting read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An interesting book. A town and a few of its people in a few short stories. Well worth reading, surprisingly good.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a very moving, different book. Not at all what I expected, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. A quick read because it is hard to stop. Each chapter opens more interest in the characters. I may just have to read it again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a really great read. Highly recommend!!
imkevbo More than 1 year ago
I've only read Ernie's Ark, the first story in this collection, but it was a charming, enjoyable selection! I would purchase the book for first story alone! Then, if the other stories are as entertaining, what a bargain!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I started this book and really lost the story line of it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I will be looking for more from Monica Wood.
SouthernSilverReader3 More than 1 year ago
This book really draws you in & holds you in it's grip. Very touching and also humorous. Wonderful story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A kalideascope of characters around a single event.
chrn3211 More than 1 year ago
I am a sucker for short stores and really liked this one as all of the stories were set in the same city/state and the characters were intertwined.
richardderus on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Rating: 4.875* of fiveThe Book Report: Ernie Whitten no longer has a purpose. He's been a pipe-fitter in Abbots Falls, Maine, at the papermill, for most of his life and now he's...retired, unemployed, not working, whatever...BORED. So he decides to build something.An ark. Like in the Bible. Maybe miracles will come with it, for Marie, his sick wife.Nine stories spin in their orbits around this one major event in Abbots Falls, involving town residents both willing and unwilling, and purposeful and aimless, and old and young.My Review: Sparkles like a gem. The writing is delectable, a sensory feast and an emotional powerhouse. The characters are all limned in quick, indelible strokes and the way Monica Wood works is to make you care just this side of too much for each of them, and then moves on to the next one, all before your readerly feet are fully under you. It's a really cool trick, gotta tell ya.I said once upon a time that I couldn't understand why this wasn't a TV series. I still don't get it. Abbotts Falls should be on the airwaves somehow. Don't hesitate to pick this book up. It will pay your attention back many times over.
tututhefirst on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In this poignant collection of stories, reminiscent of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Wood explores the devastating impact of a long-term union strike against a paper mill in fictional Abbot Falls Maine. Residents of this town, who have depended on the mill and its earnings for generations are suddenly faced with making decisions they have never considered before. By using several different characters, we are able to see the consequences of this year long drag on the local economy, on individual lives, and on the extended community. So much more insightful than any reality TV you'll ever see.Central to the book is Ernie Whitten, a pipefitter at the mill who is only 3 months short of retirement when the strike begins. He now faces not only the loss of income, and the loss of his pension, but the loss of his wife who is in the terminal stages of cancer. Their only son lives in California, and is rarely in touch. To satisfy a seemingly random suggestion from his wife, Ernie begins to build an ark in the side yard. Throughout the book, the image of the ark pulls other characters into the saga. If God could work a miracle once, why not again? Perhaps if he could just get it finished and get his wife on the ark, she wouldn't leave him.Various members of another family, the Little's, are woven in as ex-spouses, town officials and strikebreakers. The CEO and owner of the mill makes an appearance early on as he tries to deal with his own problems---not just striking mill workers, but a distant and headstrong adult daughter whose own life is falling apart.The shining stars are middle-schooler Francine and her step-mother Cindy Love (ex wife of a Little) and owner of Showers of Flowers. Francine is determined that her father and Cindy will hold their marriage together and will go so far as to hide her father's infidelities to avoid losing another mother (her birth mother dumped the kids and went off to London). Her brother Kevin, surly, hurting high-schooler hates everyone, everything, and only wants to become another Thoreau living in the woods. Cindy wisely plays referee between father and son, and gives Francine the attention and mothering she's never enjoyed before.These nine stories are gems. The writing is as snappy as the breeze on a crystal clear Maine lake in the spring. I'm not sure how I ever missed this one. It's a gem, and I'm really glad that Amazon has brought it back digitally. Grab it anyway you can and rejoice that there are still writers who can bring this much joy out of this kind of sadness.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Easy read, loved the author's style of explaining each character.
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