Vermont Authors Reviewed
Laura Stevenson
 

Chris Bohjalian, The Flight Attendant.

Doubleday, 2018.


A Compassionate, Literary Airplane Thriller


Cassandra Bowen wakes slowly in a posh Dubai suite, hung-over, ashamed of her one-night stand, and puzzled that she is still in bed last night's lover. She thought she'd left. She should have left. She's a flight attendant, and at 11:15 she has to be back in her own hotel room and ready to be shuttled to the airport for the return flight with the rest of the crew. Miserably, she shrugs off her shame, sits up, and looks at Alex Sokolov, hedge fund manager, the passenger in 2C, the latest of many lovers who've liked her because she's a drunk and easy … . And his throat has been cut. Next to his side of the bed, there's a vodka bottle with a broken neck and a sharp edge. Did she murder him? She hopes not, but she's been blackout drunk so many times that she knows all about memory gaps. Terrified, she destroys what "evidence" she can as she hurries to her own hotel room. She changes into her uniform, and although she panics when her friend knocks on her door, and again as the airplane's takeoff is held up, she manages to keep up her professional standards on the flight, and hopes it's over. But of course it can't be. In Dubai, Alex's body is discovered, Cassie's presence in his room is established, and soon she is answering to the FBI. Even more alarmingly, she senses that she is being followed. As her life spins out of control, Cassie resorts to the conditioned subterfuge of functioning alcoholism, lying and making disastrous "investigations" that impede the efforts of her intelligent lawyer, Ani Mouradian.


As she stumbles from one error, one drink, and one lover to another, Cassie clings to her only clear memories about her night with Alex. First, he was kind to her, warmly sharing his love of Russian literature with her. Second, his colleague Miranda stopped by the room late at night to talk about the next day's meeting, bringing a bottle of vodka which the three of the shared. The memory is accurate – except the woman, neither named Miranda nor a colleague of Alex's, was a professional assassin working for Russian oligarchs. She is introduced to the reader in an early chapter, and her share of the narrative gives the book's title a double meaning: she becomes the chillingly professional attendant of Cassie's flight.

The dual point of view allows Bohjalian to keep up the plot's accelerating pace by switching perspectives, repeatedly withholding information that would allow readers to anticipate the book's direction. The climax of that technique comes in final pages that explode with a revelation that has been prepared but has almost certainly gone unnoticed. What stays with the reader after the book is closed, however, is Bohjalian's parallel portraiture of two very different women, each with painful memories of her father that has affected her life's choices, and each – again very differently – a victim of abuse from men in positions of power. Whether professionally dealing with thoughtless treatment from passengers, or capably serving remorseless men to whom "paranoia is a survival skill," Bohjalian's admirably portrayed flight attendants inhabit a literary world far above the patterns of commercial airplane reading.


Jackson Ellis, Lords of St. Thomas

Green Writers Press, 2018.


Burlington Writer Portrays a Nevada Ghost Town


Henry Lord is born in St. Thomas, Nevada, a six-block town in the Moapa Valley. His grandfather, for whom he is named, was brought there as a baby; his parents live in Grandpa's house, near the local school where Henry's mother began teaching. The town, surrounded by the desolate beauty of the Mojave desert, sits near the confluence of the Muddy and Virgin Rivers, which ensure its water supply, irrigate its fields, and nurture the trees Grandpa's father planted to shade their yard. When Henry is two, and Act of Congress begins the construction of Boulder Dam, and surveys prove that St. Thomas will be covered by the dammed up Colorado River. Soon, federal officials appear in St. Thomas, offering the town's citizens market price for their land. Grandpa refuses to sell. It's family land, he says, and he will fight the dam for it. Henry's father, a mechanic in Grandpa's once-prosperous garage, takes a job working on the dam; the two never speak to each other again.


The most compelling portion of Lords of St. Thomas is the story of a boyhood spent in a doomed town and a divided family. The only child left in St. Thomas, Henry spends hours pitching balls against the wall of the abandoned school. His practice gradually ruins the ball, but Dad brings him a bag of new balls for his eighth birthday – and also shows him the safe he has hidden in the crawl space underneath the house, making him promise not to tell Grandpa it exists. Grandpa remains intransigent even when neighbors move, leaving only foundations where their houses used to be and fields gone to waste. Henry watches as the cemetery is dug up and coffins are trucked out of town, all but the coffin of Grandpa's long-dead wife, which Grandpa has not allowed to be moved. When Dad is killed by a fall from his work on the Dam, Grandpa wants him buried in St. Thomas, too. Mom won't allow it, but she is as adamant as Grandpa when it comes to staying. There is, however, no arguing with the water creeping toward St. Thomas: after a thunderstorm and flash flood that catches them out fishing, Henry and Grandpa return to find the whole town flooded, and Henry is witness to the final stage of the loss that has affected his family all his life. After Henry and Grandpa's dramatic escape from their drowning house, the book winds down in a protracted history of Henry and Grandpa, and an ending (set up in the initial chapter) in which twenty-first century drought enables Henry, now an old man, to revisit the foundations of his house in hopes of finding his father's secret safe.


Lords of St. Thomas is the winner of Green Writers Press's 2017 Howard Frank Mosher First Novel Prize, and it is an extended tribute to Mosher's influence on Vermont writers. The patriarchal grandfather, the inconspicuous son, the nurturing but almost invisible mother, and the admiring grandson will be familiar to Mosher readers; so are the descriptions of a splendid landscape. That landscape and its history are both real, though the story is not; readers who wish to savor the scenery can search for St Thomas online and join Ellis's meditation on man's ironic efforts to conquer the land. "You can build on it," says Henry, "and you can flood it out, but someday the Moapa Valley and everything in it will return to sand and saltbush."



Robin MacArthur, Heart Spring Mountain.

Harper Collins: Ecco, 2018


A Compelling Vermont Novel from Robin MacArthur


As Heart Spring Mountain opens, Tropical Storm Irene is raging through southern Vermont. Bonnie, long a heroin addict, shoots up and walks out into the storm to stand on a bridge, watching the torrent rise and shouting her exhilaration to her long-absent daughter, Vale. Far away in New Orleans, Vale gets a late-night call from Vermont; her aunt ("a near stranger"), tells her that a bridge has collapsed, and her mother has been missing for eight hours. Vale hasn't phoned Bonnie for two months, hasn't seen her since she left home eight years before, but she returns to Vermont and starts looking for Bonnie. Her search gradually draws her into her larger family, which has lived on Heart Spring Mountain since 1803. MacArthur gracefully dispenses with such novelistic props as letters, photograph albums, or diaries, and instead lets three generations of that family speak for themselves in short, interlaced chapters, each carefully dated. We follow the 1956 first-person narrative of Lena, who lives in her grandfather's hunting cabin with her one-eyed owl, Otie. We follow the dementia-tinged 2011 narrative of Hazel, Lena's 90-year-old sister, the owner of the farmhouse the family's ancestors built in the early nineteenth century. We meet Deb, gradually piecing together her progress from a hippie commune in 1974, through her marriage to Hazel's son Stephen, to the present, where she becomes Vale's compassionate anchor and Hazel's nurse. In the book's two center sections, which contain wonderfully intricate plotting, the present-tense historical narratives from the mid-twentieth century combine with Vale's search to reveal long hidden family secrets. Be forewarned: the gradual, subtle revelation of these secrets is best appreciated by readers who jot down family names and relationships as they read along.


The resulting book, like MacArthur's 2016 short story collection Half Wild, portrays a Vermont little known to outsiders. Here again, we find women living in cabins, shacks, and trailers with no running water and seldom-running cars. It also portrays a Vermont that is largely unfamiliar even to Vermont "natives." The non-chronological sequence of the chapters demonstrates the value of the Abenaki mindset that Vale finds in Evan Pritchard's book No Word For Time, in which past and future are important primarily in how they relate to "now." And the "now" of the seemingly isolated family on Heart Spring Mountain is one inescapably affected by cultural and ecological destruction. Vale discovers the 1920's and 30's Vermont Eugenics movement that sterilized or otherwise destroyed the Abenaki in order to ensure that Vermont remained the province of the White Man. Hazel's husband Lex returns from Korea with PTSD. Deb joins a commune in reaction to the Vietnam War; Stephen maims his trigger finger so he can't serve. Their son goes to Guatemala and barely escapes a fatal mud slide that results from global warming. Vale's photographer lover Neko portrays the aftermath of the Iraq War.

"To do damage to the earth does spiritual damage as well," says Pritchard, and MacArthur's book, opening with Tropical Storm Irene, ending with a ruinous ice storm on the Solstice, and punctuated throughout with radio reports of storms, wars and human horrors, portrays the private spiritual damage tangentially linked to publicly broadcast disasters. While its vision is sobering, however, the book also portrays a family that gradually comes together, acknowledging its ties as the youngest generation dances by candlelight. The future, Deb reflects, is likely to be poorer than the past; none of the family can afford to keep up the farmhouse their ancestors were at such pains to build. But they have their "now," and in an increasingly damaged world, that is a great deal.



Tracey Medeiros, Vermont Non-GMO Cookbook

Skyhorse Publishing, 2017.


125 Organic and Farm-to-Fork Recipes from the Green Mountain State.


As its subtitle promises, this handsomely produced book offers 125 organic recipes to its readers, several of them by Medeiros herself, but the majority collected from Vermont's farm-to-table chefs. Along with these recipes, it provides an armchair tour of Vermont organic farms and restaurants whose chefs are committed to cooking food that has not been genetically modified. Its Foreword provides a brief history of Vermont's place as the first state to pass a bill that required labeling of GMO foods. While the bill was pre-empted by a much weaker federal law, its passage has alerted other states to the need for transparency food production, at a time when 80% of packaged food currently for sale in supermarkets (and nearly all animal feed) contains GMOs. There is, this book demonstrates, an alternative to the products of agribusiness: healthy, delicious, locally-grown food with DNA that has not been tampered with.


As you page through the book, admiring Oliver Parini's photographs of farmers, chefs and the finished recipes, you gradually accumulate a general picture of Vermont's twenty-first century farm-to-fork food scene. Practically every recipe is accompanied by a written profile of the people who have provided it. Thus, the tempting breakfast/brunch entry, "French Toast Casserole with Ben & Jerry's Vanilla Ice Cream" is paired with a profile of Ben & Jerry's Homemade, Inc. The next recipe, "Farm Fresh Quiche with Potato Crust" is paired with a profile of Earthwise Farm and Forest, in Bethel. A later recipe, "Green Mountain Sandwich with Maple Balsamic Vinaigrette," is paired with a profile of its source, Wilmington's Village Roost Café & Marketplace. A Wilmington reader can also find profiles of cafes and restaurants in Grafton, Newfane, North Bennington and Peru – all within less than an hour's drive. The farms and cafes in the book are scattered throughout Vermont, but the profiles are remarkably alike. Many of the chefs who have chosen to cook non-GMO food began with very different careers in cities, primarily New York. A few of the farmers have turned their family's farms organic, but the majority are young couples who have been drawn to Vermont in the past decade by the state's promise of communities that provide a ready market for organic, non-GMO food. In a larger agricultural world dominated by money, the farms are showcases of how much can be done with very little capital: many of the farms comprise only a few acres; Vermont Land Trust has helped finance others.


The recipes are delectable and clearly presented; another set of profiles introduces readers to lesser-know ingredients like ramps, Japanese knotweed, and Jerusalem artichokes. Offerings extend from breakfasts to desserts, from one that made a virtue of necessity in impoverished World War II Italy to Medeiros's brand-new suggestions. While all are tempting, most assume the presence of kitchen equipment, culinary sophistication, and preparation time unavailable to the majority of home cooks. They are exactly what the book's subtitle says: recipes from hardworking food-raising and cooking professionals. Read it for inspiration and for guidance when you're looking for an excellent meal or interesting trip, and take seriously its support of organic food. But when you come home from work at 5:00 with dinner to make, remember that non-GMOS can also be used in simpler dishes.



Walter Hess, A Refugee's Journey: A Memoir.

Jewish Currents: Blue Thread Books, 2018.


From a not-quite Vermonter, but a frequent visitor


The prologue of Walter Hess's memoir deftly summarizes its shape by describing the three seminal voyages of his life as a refugee. In the first voyage, eight-year-old Hess and his family fled Germany in 1939 and sailed to Ecuador. The second, in the spring of 1940, began in Ecuador and ended in New York City, where the family settled. The third, thirteen years later, found Hess, now a private in the US Army, sailing from New York on an army ship bound for Germany. This third voyage made him confront his fears of "all those many absences, threats, and abandonments, which had threaded their way through those early years." The memoir is thus a coming-of-age story, and it derives its power from the immediacy with which it evokes the conflicting feelings of a child and young man pondering his heritage and its meaning.


Mingled with the tale of Hess's actual and metaphorical journeys are beautifully-described scenes that linger long in readers' minds. We follow him on his five-year-old's walk through his Rhineland village of Ruppichteroth, in which his Opa leads the services in the synagogue. Proud of his new boots, he shows them off at friendly shops and houses of Jew and Gentile alike, and is led home at sunset hand in hand with his father. We see him sharing his Oma's love for her glass-protected asparagus bed – and feel his bewilderment when she stops gardening after the family comes home from service and finds the glass has been smashed. We catch him unable to stop staring at pictures of "Jews" with hooked noses, black hats and side locks, wondering "if these were Jews, ... what was I?" Later, we feel the compassionate hand of the teacher who leads him home after he and his classmates see smoke at recess and realize that the synagogue is burning. We feel the chill metal of the hidden cream separator he embraces in lieu of any other comforter as the village official the family knows from the band and the soccer team takes Hess's father and other male Jewish villagers away (to Dachau, he tells them when he finds out later). We feel Hess's hope, fear and boredom as he witnesses his mother's frantic and eventually successful efforts to reunite the family and escape the country. In Ecuador, where Hess's father is hired by a hacienda, we see the boy's shocking introduction to hunger, as workers' wives bite the lice they comb from their daughters' hair, and the farm workers drink the blood of a doe they have killed in the fields. In New York, we hear the echoes in the family's first empty apartment, we feel Hess's fury when he and his brother are sent to an orphanage because his family can't support them, and we follow his passionate reading of Allied victories in the papers, his cheers for every German defeat.


One of the most powerful aspects of this extraordinary memoir is Hess's confrontation (and denial) of his feelings about German-ness. As a child, he hears all Germans are one people – but how can Czechs be Germans when Jewish Germans "like us" are not Germans? In America, having learned what the idea of Germany has done to his family, Hess angrily wonders how his parents can "fawn over German," when they listen to German music and the radio? He finally confronts his feelings at the book's end, where in his American Army uniform, he again walks through Ruppichteroth in a wonderful summation of his losses – and his new self.



Half Wild: Stories

Robin MacArthur

Ecco, 2016.


Local Writer Portrays The Other Vermont


In this debut collection of skillfully-crafted short stories, Robin MacArthur, a third-generation member of the Marlboro MacArthur family, joins Howard Frank Mosher and Castle Freeman in portraying characters set in an intimately-known Vermont landscape. All eleven stories are set in the fictionalized environs of Marlboro, and readers with local knowledge will recognize such recurring road names as Stark, Butterfield, Augur Hole. They may, however, be less familiar with the culture that dominates the collection. While the term "half wild" is used to describe wolf-dog hybrids in the opening story, in a larger sense, it describes the ethos of the stories: a world that MacArthur deliberately contrasts with Vermont's image of pastoral loveliness and its tangential relationship with the American Dream. The characters hover on the edge of poverty. While they appreciate (with varying degrees of resentment and frustration) the beauty of the woods that surrounds them, they live in trailers or shacks, disintegrating farm houses whose pastures are going to scrub, or "collections of rooms" that have never quite evolved into houses. Their recreations are TV, drugs, beer, whiskey, and occasional parties in which everybody gets stoned or laid. And yet, their world has a hold on them, even when they leave. "There are two worlds I won't ever belong to," says the narrator of "The Women Where I'm From," who has returned from Seattle to visit her dying mother. "Home or any other."


MacArthur's stories relate "home," a freighted term in anybody's vocabulary, to the illusions and distortions with which her characters consider their histories. In one of the most deftly-written stories, "The Heart of the Woods," Sally, the daughter of a logger, wife of a real estate developer, briefly returns to her past as she drinks with her father at a bar. Gradually, the story weaves Sally's denial of her role in persuading her father's neighbors to sell their land cheaply with her equally denied experience of her father's abuse. Two other stories portray women from wealthy families who in their twenties come "back to the land," again contrasting their versions of reality with what is before them – in once case, a son who has joined the Marines in Afghanistan because his mother's belief in simplicity has made his college education unaffordable, in another, an aging hippie who is dying in the commune where she now lives alone, ignoring both her deteriorating condition and the deterioration of her farm. Then there is Vi, whose clear-sightedness contrasts strongly with the illusions of other narrators; her straightforward love for "her man" and perceptive acceptance of the passage of time colors her moving narrative of her husband's death. In all the stories, the past affects the present as failing farms are sold off and turned to vacation homes; and yet only Vi can accept change as a natural process and look at it without fear.

To read MacArthur's collection straight through is to do it a disservice, because the stories' superficial likenesses (all narrated in the first person, all but three in the present tense, all but two by women) make them merge in the memory and may lead habitual novel-readers to unjustly anticipate a development that is not forthcoming. Read the way short stories are meant to be read – thoughtfully, one at a sitting, over a period of time – the collection reveals meticulous craftsmanship that enhances MacArthur's compassionate portrayal of her characters and the landscape that both beguiles and imprisons them.



Vermont Exit Ramps II.

Neil Shepard and Anthony Reczek

Green Writers Press, 2015.


A Celebration of Exit Ramps


Picture yourself driving north in Vermont along the Interstate, absently noting the exits as you pass them: Putney (#4), Bellows Falls (#6), and so on up to the White River Junction nexus, and then either continuing on I-91 toward Saint Johnsbury (#21,22) and beyond to Canada at Derby Line, or taking I-89 toward Montpelier (#8 ), Stowe (#10), Burlington (#14,15) and up to Canada along Lake Champlain. As you speed along the highway, it blends so well into its beautiful vistas that it's easy to forget that it has existed for fewer than sixty years, and that building it (at a time when many Vermont roads, including Route 100, were still unpaved) effected the greatest change in Vermont's topography since the ice age.


That change – destruction in the name of progress, followed by the recovery of what poet Neil Shepard dubs "ramplands" – is the subject of this wonderful collection of poems. It's the fruit of five years of Shepard and Reczek's springtime drives along the 321 miles of Vermont's Interstates, reflecting upon every exit ramp and its environs, and (not incidentally) portraying the immense cultural change the Interstates have brought to Vermont. The collection begins with an invocation to the forgotten territories of change: "Who will claim the kingdom of exit ramps and cloverleafs/on the hillsides of I-89, these realms of birch and pine/ rippling in mountain wind on a spring day, domains of quiet/forgetfulness, places ravaged and recovered." Then, starting at Stowe (#10), the poems meditate on one rampland after another, with occasional sorties into neighboring towns. Each poem is accompanied by photographs whose ethos is familiar to even casual readers of Vermont Life – and with good reason, since Anthony Reczek's photographs appear frequently in the magazine. In several of these, most notably those accompanying the first and last poems in the collection, the beauties of the flowering May ramplands are juxtaposed with a blurred, speeding vehicle, in a way that makes Interstate travelers visually irrelevant.


Shepard, for many years a teacher at Johnson State's Creative Writing Program, is the author of several other poetic collections, including the 2012 chapbook Vermont Exit Ramps. The first thirteen poems in Vermont Exit Ramps II also appear in the chapbook. As denizens of southern Vermont will immediately notice, poems celebrating exit ramps south of White River Junction are not included. There are two exceptions, however. One is pictorial: the picture accompanying the poem on St. Albans (I-89,#19) portrays not that exit, but #3 off I-91 in Brattleboro, with a vista under the "I love rust" railway line toward the double bridge over the Connecticut River on Rt. 9 to Keene. The other is an elegy for Romaine Tenney, the Vermont farmer who, rather than watch I-91 engulf his house and farm, burned it down with himself inside: "Self-immolation was his only protest./The hillside burned for a night and a day./Afterwards, the road crew worked/in a stupor. The surveyor drank." The setting of this tragic tale is just off the I-91 exit (#8) at Windsor and Ascutney. (If you're driving north and should want to tip your cap, turn right off the exit ramp, and in a few yards you'll find yourself at Tenney Hill Road.) Most of the poems in the collection, like its gorgeous pictures, are not tragic. They're stories of change, reflections on loss and renewal, portraits of the Vermont that takes Interstates for granted. Once you've looked at the collection, you'll never think of Vermont (or of exit ramps) in quite the same way again.


Vermont Exit Ramps is published by West Brattleboro's Green Writers Press, in conjunction with Sundog Poetry Center.

First Published Deerfield Valley News, 4/28/2016



The Devil in the Valley.

Castle Freeman, Jr.

Overlook Duckworth, 2015


Mephistopheles Comes to Vermont


In the late middle of his life, Langdon Taft sits on the peeling porch of his Vermont house and reflects with dissatisfaction that he is a backpacker in the Dark Wood. An "ex-gentleman, ex-teacher, ex-scholar, ex-householder, ex-abstainer," he has money enough, friends – but he needs material, content, plot. A guide.


He gets one. Not Virgil (right Inferno, wrong plot) but Dangerfield, a nattily dressed, twenty-first century Mephistopheles who offers him a contract: seven months of anything his heart desires, in return for his soul. It's a good contract, Dangerfield adds suavely. It lasts through Columbus day -- "you won't have to miss the foliage." And it's for real: challenged to prove that he can deliver on his offer, Dangerfield gives Taft what he asks for – four new tires on his truck so it can pass inspection. So begins the Faustian bargain, proceeding in chapters that alternate tales of Taft's unorthodox use of his unlimited power with the shrewd, incisively humorous commentary of his friend Eli and the nonagenarian Calpurnia Lincoln, who is ending her life in the hospice rooms of the local clinic.


The dust jacket of this wonderful book says it is a tale of "temptation and greed" set in "dark, moody rural Vermont." Don't judge this book by its front flap; there's nothing dark or moody about it. Temptation and greed appear, but in the context of wry humor. It is, for example, suggested that Taft is a second-generation Faust; either that, or his father's acquisition of all the real estate along the Route 91 corridor years before the highway's construction was a matter of amazing good luck. No, intricately woven into a landscape where everybody is related to everybody else and "if your tractor's paid off, you're rich," The Devil in the Valley changes Dante's Dark Wood into Thoreau's woods and turns the tragedy of Faustian over-reaching into a tale of Wants and Needs. Its humor is an unending delight; its dialogue, structure and characters open out with deceptive simplicity; and its conclusion (don't skip to the end!) is a piece of artistic mastery.


  1. *Castle Freeman is the author of three other novels – Judgment Hill (1995); Go With Me (2008 -- soon to be a movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Julia Stiles); and All That I Have (2009). A fourth novel, the luminous My Life and Adventures (2003), doubles as a local history of Ambrose [aka, Newfane]. He has also published two collections of short stories: Bride of Ambrose (1987), and Round Mountain (2011).


First Published Deerfield Valley News, 2/4/2016

 
Laura C. Stevenson graduated from the University of Michigan as co-winner of the prize for the best senior honors thesis in history. She continued writing history at Yale, and taught Elizabethan History at UC Santa Barbara for a year before completing her doctoral dissertation. As a cultural historian, she studied the literary power of Elizabethan pastoral in her book Praise and Paradox, and later followed the pastoral thread in her studies of the Golden Age of Children's Literature. As a novelist, she juxtaposed Vermont and California in her young adult book Happily After All, and she used many themes of Elizabethan pastoral romance in her young adult fantasy The Island and the Ring. In her novel Return in Kind, and her collection of linked stories, Liar from Vermont, she has portrayed the world of Vermont summers. Her experiences with disability, coming at a time when her escalating deafness necessitated first microphones, then transcribers, shaped her two later children's books, All the King's Horses and A Castle in the Window. Laura's hearing was partially restored by a cochlear implant in 2003, She is the widow the poet F.D. Reeve and lives in her family's Vermont farmhouse.

Laura Stevenson’s website: www.lauracstevenson.org        These reviews were first published in the Deerfield Valley News