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Life on Matinicus Island

Life on Matinicus Island
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Matinicus lies 23 miles out to sea, the most remote inhabited island on the Atlantic seaboard. Its unique culture has been little understood by the outside world. When a moment of violence “crossed a line that had never been crossed before,” the islanders were caught between a precious past and a precarious future.


Vance Bunker turned 70 this year, a large, grizzled man with broad shoulders, ham-size hands, and a weathered face. He’s hard of hearing and walks arthritically. Once, nearly 20 years ago,he was the captain of a lobster boat,the Jan-Ellen, that pulled three doomed tugboat sailors out of a January sea on a night when the storm swells were eight feet high and the wind chill was 50 below. Medals followed, and media stories, a standing ovation on the floor of the Maine State House, a citation in the Congressional Record. For 17 years after that night-and more than 30 years before it-he was a lobsterman on Matinicus Island: one of its most esteemed, remembered by some for his cussedness, by others for the size of his hauls, and by at least a few for the sick children he sometimes flew, in his private plane, to medical care on the mainland. (“[He] was my personal hero,” blogged journalist Crash Barry, a former Matinicus lobster-boat sternman. “A gentle, funny giant … He drove a boat like it was an extension of his body … Kind and generous, tough and strong …”)

Today, two years after putting a bullet into the neck of another lobsterman, in defense, he says, of his daughter, Vance Bunker is a pariah on the island: legally acquitted but privately unforgiven, widely but quietly reviled. Although he still does business on Matinicus and hauls traps in its waters, he lives year_round on the mainland now, his island home of 30 years up for sale, his life there — a lifetime — now behind him. He says he isn’t angry, but it’s hard to believe him, and his wife says no such thing. Even the few who defend him, including parents who recall what he did for their children, are too fearful of their neighbors to say so publicly.

And it doesn’t end with him. Three families have been fractured. A man is partially paralyzed. Old wounds have deepened. A fragile, prized way of life, unchanged for generations, has never seemed more in peril. And on this little island, where a brooding sort of silence has settled over things, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t fear for the future.

“A saddening has happened here,” Suzanne Rankin says. “It’s happened to me, to the island–it’s happened to us all. We’re living it, every one of us, every single day. Vance and S.T. [Vance Bunker's wife, Sari] don’t see that, I don’t think. How could they possibly, with all their troubles? My heart goes out to them–but they don’t see it at all.”

Rankin lives, with her husband, Tom, in a 200-year-old farmhouse along a gravel road, the only through road here, midway between the school and the church. She’s in her late sixties, an attractive, courtly woman with frosted gray hair and blue, intelligent eyes. Though not born here herself-she arrived with Tom less than 30 years ago, which makes her almost an interloper by the island’s way of seeing things-she can trace her own ancestry here back nearly to the settlement’s beginning: to Phebe Young, who came with her husband in 1763. She is the island’s historian, the clerk-secretary of its church, and a member of its school board. Her devotion to the place seems almost ingrown.

It’s the same with everyone here. You almost have to be devoted to choose to live in such a place: some 15 miles off the coast (23 miles by ferry from Rockland); no year-round stores, or bars or eateries, or doctors or policemen or paved roads, and only one industry; where the fog drops around you like a curtain for days at a time, the same three families have been fighting the same fights for 200 years, and the ferry comes once a month in winter. As the natives are fond of saying: You live here because you love it, or you don’t live here at all.

But lately, since that July morning two years ago, when Vance Bunker shot Chris Young-and the island’s clan-based, sometimes brutish culture was suddenly the stuff of cable-TV news–the islanders’ devotion, while no less total, has stiffened and turned fearful.

“A line has been crossed that was never crossed before,” Suzanne Rankin says. “There’s no going back. The question is: Where will the next line be?”

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