REM Award Honorees (2003) — Richard Russo (Community Catalyst Award)

Rick Russo inspired the birth of this REM Award. Through his literary talent, he has brought an exciting new spirit to our people. The excitement created by Empire Falls has renewed our pride in our land, our community, and each other—a spirit temporarily lost due to mill closings; the 9/11 tragedies; and a world that changes ever faster, too fast for us to absorb.

Rick is one of us. He has touched the stars. In fact, he has brought the stars home to us. His talent has put us, momentarily, in the limelight. We believe that when the lights go out, we will carry forth a renewed commitment to creating “Maine, the way life should be.”

Rick has inspired us. When people are motivated, they move along as long as the leader remains. When people are inspired, they grow on their own. It is their renewed energy that enables them to share their own vision and move toward it.

We thank you Rick. We are proud that you are one of us. We hope that this evening will be and will remain a good memory.

Wondrous Things: Celebrating Richard Russo

By Jennifer Finney Boylan

Toward the end of his second novel, The Risk Pool, Richard Russo describes a man who discovers a photograph of himself taken as a boy. “In the newspaper the photograph had been grainy, but here the original was clear and I saw in it now what hadn’t been clear before. My father had instructed me to mug for the camera, which I did, but not Sam Hall. He had one hand on my shoulder, and was looking down at me proudly, as if he believed me to be truly capable of wondrous things.”

The narrator of that novel, Ned Hall, as well as his father, Sam, are familiar characters to readers of Rick’s work. The father is wild and untamed, full of a Falstaffian love of life and a disregard for consequence; the son, on the other hand, is trying to live a life of responsibility and dignity, even in the wake of his father’s fecklessness.

Rick has given his readers these men—as well as the bewildered women in their lives—in five novels now, from Mohawk to Empire Falls, as well as the collection of short stories, The Whore’s Child. More important to the essence of Rick’s work than his characters, though, are the places in which those characters live. When we finish a novel by Rick Russo, we are left with a vivid picture of a small American town—whether in rural Maine or upstate New York (a place known as the “Central Leatherstocking region” but which Rick has been known, on occasion, to refer to as “the Central Laughingstock Region”).

Russo celebrates these towns by bringing dignity and nobility to the lives of his characters. He does so with love and meticulous care, by showing that these lives are worthy of myth.

More than this, though, Rick Russo has celebrated the lives of people in towns like Gloversville, New York (his birthplace) and Waterville, Maine (his home for much of the 1990’s) not only through transforming the landscape of their lives into wise, generous, eloquent, hilarious fiction, but by seeking to achieve good for the people in these towns firsthand. In central Maine, for instance, for years he organized and ran the annual Writers’ Harvest program, which raised money for the hungry and the homeless in our area. More recently, the filming of the HBO version of his novel Empire Falls has brought jobs and hope to the people of Waterville and Skowhegan (as well as some traffic jams, for which I am sure he apologizes profusely).

Rick Russo is a national treasure, of course, but in central Maine we also think of him as uniquely ours. In his fiction we have had the opportunity to recognize the people we have been; in his charity and good works we recognize the people we aspire to be.

For all of this, we are immeasurably grateful. As we celebrate his achievement today, we thank him for his wise words, for celebrating, in his fiction and his life, our wildness and our dignity. Thanks to him, we too come to believe, just like Ned Hall, that we — all of us — are “truly capable of wondrous things.”

Editor’s Note: At the time she wrote this tribute, Jennifer Finney Boylan was co-chair of the English Department at Colby College and had written nine books, including She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, published in July 2003. In the spring of 2014, left Colby after 25 years to become the first Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University. For more information about Jennifer Finney Boylan and her works, visit her website. To learn more about Richard Russo and his works, see his publisher’s website.

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