By Steve Fuller
Special to The Ellsworth American
BUCKSPORT — Hans Krichels grew up in western Massachusetts, in a family full of singers. Although he said the singing gene skipped him, he still wanted his voice to be heard.
“I thought I would use my voice in a different way,” he said, sitting in his Bucksport home during a recent interview and explaining how that different way became writing. His writing career began as a summertime stringer for the newspaper, The Berkshire Eagle, and grew to inclusion of his pieces in literary anthologies. His latest milestone is the publication this year of his first book: “Willie Knows Who Done It: Reports From the Byways of Maine” (Atmosphere Press, Austin, Texas).
The book is divided into three sections, filled with stories about everything from softball games to a shared rototiller (many based loosely, or less-than-loosely, on his own experiences in Maine), profiles of people he has encountered or worked with in his life and also poetry (including what Krichels calls story-poems).
All of the writing is shaped in some way by his time in Maine, which he has called home for almost five decades now. He lived first in Bucksport, on 75 acres by Hancock Pond in what he calls the “outback.” Although there is a geographic nature to the term, with outback generally meaning out of town, Krichels explains in his book that it is as much a mindset and way of life as it is a place.
He describes it as “a certain do-it-yourself approach, a certain caginess around the code enforcers from town.” Though their backgrounds differ in many respects, Krichels’ stories show how the back-to-the-landers of the 1970s and the Yankee stock that had been here for generations often share that outback mentality.
Krichels’ story “Old Henry,” for example, tells of an old-timer who worshipped “Blister, Lord Supreme of WORK.” While Old Henry scoffed at some of the back-to-the-landers’ notions about beauty and art, he couldn’t deny that they “worked hard, worked until sunset, worked until their fingers were raw,” and that they were eager to learn the old ways from him. For that, they had his respect.
In the late 1960s, Krichels covered the state of Connecticut as a fieldworker for The Dictionary of American Regional English. He said he was well-trained in information-gathering and phonetic transcriptions, and “developed a pretty good ear for dialect” and inflection. That background is well-reflected in the book’s dialogue.
After living in Bucksport and raising a family (he has two now-grown daughters, Jessica and Sarah), Krichels moved to Ellsworth, where he worked for a company called Display Concepts for about a decade. After that he took a job at KidsPeace, and although it started out as a temporary job he said he “just fell in love with the kids” there.
The children at KidsPeace have often had difficult and troubled lives (they are “children in crisis,” as Krichels notes), and such backgrounds can often lead to behavior that offends, disrupts or even injures others. But Krichels said when he looked at the children he worked with he saw young people who had learned survival skills in a world that was not always friendly to them, and he said he admired them for it.
“I made it clear to them that they were my heroes,” he said. “I told them, ‘If I were you and had been through what you have been through, I wouldn’t be on my feet.’”
That respect and admiration comes through in Krichels’ writing, including in a section of the book called “All The Lost Children.” One profile is of Big Brenda (all names were changed for privacy reasons, and Krichels also had release forms from his time at KidsPeace), a “big girl” who “lumbered through the forest.” She had an aura of fear around her because of rumors she’d thrown another kid through a window after he bullied her.
But during an outing at the Great Pond Mountain Wildlands — where Krichels has volunteered for years, and where he often took kids from KidsPeace — when another child broke his leg, it was Big Brenda who came to save the day: “who bent over him, wrapped his leg tightly in her jacket, lifted him in her arms, and carried him sure-footedly half a mile back” to the vehicle.
While the children themselves might at times be lost in their own lives, Krichels is clear that he wanted to do what he could to make sure they were not lost to the larger society. Both by working with them while they were at KidsPeace and by writing about them, Krichels again sees it as him using his voice in the way that he can.
“If I wasn’t going to be a great German tenor,” he said, “I thought I could at least use my voice to advocate for the kids.”
Krichels said KidsPeace’s population shifted during the years he worked there, from mainly “conduct-disordered” children to a growing number of those on the autism spectrum. He said it was mostly children from the latter group who are referenced in his book.
He no longer works with KidsPeace, though he continues his volunteer work with the Great Pond Mountain Conservation Trust, and he moved back to Bucksport almost a decade ago, where he now lives with his partner, Nancy. He feeds a Jotul woodstove he has had since his first residency in Bucksport and has a writing room on the second floor of his small barn from where he looks out onto the limbs of a large oak tree.
The current Bucksport house was a rescue, Krichels said, as it needed a lot of work. Home improvement and repair is a passion of his in the same way writing is, though, and from tending the woodstove to taking care of a community garden space out back behind the house he is happy to call it home.
“This is a playground for me,” he said.
Krichels has a radio segment scheduled on the WERU “Bookworm” program for Thursday, May 28, at 4 p.m. Other events for the new book are likely to be scheduled in the coming months, and for more information visit hanskrichels.com or the “Willie Knows Who Done It” Facebook page.
In the meantime, the book “Willie Knows Who Done It” can be purchased at BookStacks in Bucksport, Union River Book & Toy Co. in Ellsworth, all six Sherman’s locations (including Bar Harbor), and at Longfellow Books in Portland. It can also be purchased online at Amazon and at atmospherepress.com.