Vermont Authors Reviewed

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:        These reviews were first published in the Deerfield Valley News