Elaine Ford arrived in Cambridge in the late 1950s to attend Radcliffe College but set her first novel couple of miles away from Harvard Square in North Cambridge, where the families and homes were unremarkable and enduring.
“The houses on Verdun Street were never meant to be gracious,” she wrote in “The Playhouse,” published in 1980. “They were built cheaply after the beginning of the century, deliberately squeezing the affairs of two or three families under one roof, the rooms small and dark, the closets shallow. But still respectable, decent.”
The lives of her characters were less elevated than those of their neighbors closer to Radcliffe. “They are people who don’t have the money to change their lives in any significant way,” she told the Globe that November.
In novels and short stories, most set in North Cambridge, Somerville, or Maine, she wrote about blue-collar families swept along by the tide of everyday events. Her prose “makes every inch of her fictional territory count,” Gail Goodwin wrote about “The Playhouse” in The New York Times Sunday Book Review. “A crack in the pavement, an abandoned playhouse, a facial expression, a simple conversational exchange, is focused on until it gives up its secret.”
Ms. Ford, who spent about 19 years teaching creative writing and literature at the University of Maine in Orono, died Aug. 27 in her Topsham, Maine, home of a brain tumor. She was 78 and had kept writing until she was too ill to do so.
“Her pace as a writer did not let up her whole life, once she allowed herself to become a writer,” said her husband, Arthur Boatin, whom she married in 1977.
Giving herself permission to become a writer and finding time to write were no small tasks. Ms. Ford was the mother of five children when she began her first draft of “The Playhouse,” writing in stolen two-hour intervals while her youngest, then 2, was sleeping.
She had always wanted to write, but in a way similar to her characters, the current of life carried her elsewhere. Then when Ms. Ford was in her early 30s, her mother was diagnosed with leukemia and died in her early 60s. “I had to come to terms with the fact that we’re all mortal,” Ms. Ford wrote in an autobiographical sketch on her website. “If I was going to be a writer I’d better get cracking, children or no.” Her family was living on Rindge Avenue in North Cambridge at the time, and the surroundings became her first novel’s setting.
Maureen Mullen, the main character, was an orphaned daughter, growing up with her grandmother in North Cambridge. With a novelist’s gift of observation, Maureen paid close attention to those around her, including while riding the Red Line into Boston. The subway “is comforting, anonymous; I like sitting on the bench and staring at the passengers across from me, imagining things about their lives. Of course, I am invisible. Harvard, Central, Kendall, Charles, Park, Washington: the order of stations goes through my mind like an incantation or litany.”
On the Red Line, “The journey’s dividend is when the train suddenly hits the light of day as the railway bridge rises over the Charles, and there is the pewter-gray city shrouded in mist,” Ms. Ford wrote. “A mysterious civilization emerging out of the ground — nobody else ever looks very surprised. And then the train digs under again.”
The oldest of three siblings, Elaine Ford was born in White Plains, N.Y., and grew up in Cresskill, N.J. Her father, John H. Ford, was a bank loan officer, and her mother, the former Ruth Palmer, had served on a governor’s commission on public education.
After heading to Radcliffe, Ms. Ford left college to marry Gerald Bunker, a Harvard student, in 1958. “In the ’60s, Radcliffe women were supposed to marry Harvard men, produce superior children, and fit into the mold. And everyone swallowed it,” she told the Globe. “It was the prevailing spirit of the time. You were part of the whole plan.”
She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in 1964, but by then was “engaged in the business of baby-making,” she wrote on her website. She and Bunker had five children and traveled extensively for his academic pursuits. When their first child was an infant, they “embarked on what turned out to be a year-long and in some ways foolhardy adventure: traveling through Western Europe, living in Greece for a few months, then on to Egypt, India, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe in a Volkswagen camping bus.”
Years later, they lived in Northern Ireland, where “bombs were going off all over Belfast,” before their marriage ended in 1976. Back in the United States, she was a librarian in Somerville when publishers began rejecting “The Playhouse.” She and Boatin, her second husband, had known each other for years — he and Bunker had been graduate students together. Boatin persuaded a publishing house to accept “The Playhouse” and Ms. Ford’s literary career was launched.
She set much of her second novel, 1983’s “Missed Connections,” in Somerville, and followed it with “Ivory Bright” (1986), “Monkey Bay” (1989), and “Life Designs” (1997). At Radcliffe, she had studied with avant-garde writer John Hawkes, who “taught me the values of significant detail and economy of language,” she recalled on her website.
With Boatin, who formerly taught at the University of Maine and was a journalist, Ms. Ford lived in Milbridge, Maine, for 16 years, and then in Harpswell, Maine, before moving to Topsham more than two years ago.
Ms. Ford published a short story collection, “The American Wife,” in 2007. It won a Michigan Literary Fiction Award, and she also had been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. A second collection, “This Time Might Be Different: Stories of Maine,” will be published next year. Boatin said Ms. Ford also left completed manuscripts of other novels, including a book inspired by research into the lives of her ancestors in Alabama and Mississippi.
“She was as dedicated a writer as you could ask for,” he said.
In addition to her husband, Ms. Ford leaves two sons, Mark Bunker of Pittsburgh and Andrew Bunker of Annapolis, Md.; two daughters, Lisa Magill of London and Annebeth Santin of Annapolis, Md.; a brother, Thomas of Pflugerville, Texas; and 10 grandchildren.
The family is planning a private gathering to celebrate Ms. Ford’s life.
Late in “The Playhouse,” Ms. Ford’s protagonist muses: “The two years of our marriage are gone, I don’t know where. The mind is an odd thing: how it fails to recognize things that are shifting and changing, fails to hang onto those bits and pieces of living.”
In Ms. Ford’s hands, those lost moments in forgotten lives found a literary home. “I have always been drawn to write about characters who are marginalized by class, ethnicity, physical appearance, or geographical location and about those afflicted by bad luck or devotion to causes doomed to failure,” she wrote on her website.
“Increasingly, I’m interested in how profoundly the past is bound up in the present.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.