Vermont Vaudeville debuts in Barton to sold out crowd

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Brent McCoy (left) and Maya McCoy, the stars of The Secret Circus, don their action suits for a feat of skill and daring.  The couple will demonstrate their marksmanship and comedic talents Saturday evening at Barton’s Memorial Building.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Brent McCoy (left) and Maya McCoy, the stars of The Secret Circus, don their action suits for a feat of skill and daring. The couple will demonstrate their marksmanship and comedic talents Saturday evening at Barton’s Memorial Building. Photo by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle January 29, 2014
by Joseph Gresser

BARTON — Vermonters have always had a yen for local entertainment.  Most towns, including Barton, boast theaters that once hosted traveling shows that toured the country.

Barton’s Memorial Building will welcome a revival of that tradition Saturday night, when Vermont Vaudeville comes to town.

The group, made up of a four-person core and guest performers, has embarked on a nine-town tour of Vermont over the next six weeks as part of its campaign to revive locally produced and consumed entertainment.

Justin Lander, Rose Friedman and Brent and Maya McCoy started their troupe five years ago with an inaugural performance at the Orleans Municipal Building.  Since then they have presented several sold-out shows at the Hardwick Town House every year.

In a conversation on an icy January evening at the East Hardwick home of Ms. Friedman and Mr. Lander, the performers reflected on their journey so far and their plans for the future.

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Opinion: Rock on, Lake Region

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The Lake Region Union High School Rangerettes.  Photo by Peter Cocoros

The Lake Region Union High School Rangerettes. Photo by Peter Cocoros

by Tena Starr

This year’s Lake Region Union High School Winter Concert was something I would have paid money to attend.  From first to last, it was spectacular.

There’s such pressure on academics, but arts matter as well, and it’s something to keep in mind as school budgets tighten and tests gain importance.

Hurrah to whoever decided that Lake Region’s budget should include money for the elegant clothes all those fine musicians and singers wore.  It was mightily impressive to see the young people decked out in gowns, white shirts, and black vests and bow ties.  The school should be commended for its commitment to its music program and providing an incentive for the kids to take it all seriously, which they did.

And Sara Doncaster should be commended for coming up with such an innovative program, which ranged from classics to Etta Brown, and included the funniest version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” that I’ve ever heard.  I saw it on the program and sighed, being a Scrooge, I guess, and considering “The Twelve Days of Christmas” one of the most tedious holiday songs ever written.

Not this version.  It was surprising and amusing, but it was also a complex song to sing — one that could have easily, and abominably, failed were it not for such a skilled group of singers.

Katie Lucas and the Rangerettes ought to go shopping for paid gigs.  The audience found itself whooping and whistling and, eventually, doing a standing ovation for that terrifically talented little group of young women.

And when was the last time you went to a school concert and heard a trio of young men croon a Frank Sinatra tune?

They all looked like they were having such fun, as were the people listening to them.

Then there’s the bands.  The Five Dollar Band, which backed up Katie and the Rangerettes, the Jazz Band, and the Orchestral Band.  They were challenged, and they rose to it.  What a fine, fine job those musicians did.

This is great stuff — for the kids, for those of us parents, for the future of music.  Thank you Lake Region, Sara Doncaster, and in particular, all you promising singers and musicians for providing such a rousing and excellent performance.  Rock on.

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Vermont history through the eyes of a lawyer

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paul gillies book webUncommon Law, Ancient Roads, and other Ruminations on Vermont Legal History, by Paul Gillies.  Published by the Vermont Historical Society. 2013.  414 pages with index. $24.95.

Reviewed by Paul Lefebvre

People who major in history in college often find themselves going to law school once they graduate.  More often, anyway, than those who major in physics or biology.  Ironically, Paul Gillies, who has a master’s degree in English from the University of Vermont, reversed that familiar transition by becoming a historian after he first became a lawyer.

Fortunately, for anyone interested in Vermont history, it’s been a seamless transition.  As a lawyer with a flair for writing, Gillies has given us a book that is quirky, original and highly entertaining as a study of Vermont’s past.

What’s original about Uncommon Law, Ancient Roads and Other Ruminations on Vermont Legal History, is how revealing our laws reflects our history.  Not just the laws as they were passed 200 years ago, but as recent as the Ancient Road Law that was passed by the Legislature in 2006.

The key question underlying ancient roads, say Gillies, writing as an attorney, is:  “What happens when the town announces it intends to develop the public road that runs through your property that nobody has traveled for several centuries?”

The question requires a legal resolution, but Gillies the historian frames its importance in a much larger context.  The lasting value in finding ancient roads — those having “no nexus to the current highway map” — is to show how a town evolved, or “how the hill farms were abandoned, the villages developed, and the land subdivided.”

Politically, a republic is a country governed by laws.  And to read Gillies is to see how laws mirror a country or state’s historical development.

Following the American Revolution, the country as well as Vermont did away with the British custom of judges wearing scarlet and ermine robes in court.  The tradition of judges wearing robes, however, remained.

By wearing a robe, explains Gillies, “the person is covered up and the office made manifest by the costume.”  And while individual judges may retire, “the robe comes back every day.”

Not to be outdone by members of the judicial branch, Vermont legislators even went one step further in 1789 by allowing members to “sit with their heads covered, except when they address the Speaker.”

Gillies, himself, appears to have little patience with some of the practices still at work today when a Latin phrase is used instead of an English one.  For while it may elevate a proceeding, he says, it also has a downside for the layman who has come to court.

“Latin can be so powerful, until you have to translate it, and then it falls flat, like explaining a joke to someone who doesn’t get it.”

Property laws or those regulating trade and commerce often come in reaction to something that is causing a conflict.  Gillies lays out an number of case histories on point, including those stemming from an eighteenth-century enterprise that every spring churned the waters of the Connecticut River until the early nineteen-hundreds:  the log drives.

“Like the law, log driving took balance, judgment, and quickness,” he writes in verve that is typical of his style.

In 1785 the Legislature passed a law that gave an owner nine months to remove his logs from a drive that had become snared by the river.  Similar laws ruled that the logs could be no longer than 20 feet and had to be marked for identification by the owner.

Throughout the decades there were laws passed that regulated log diameters and set deadlines for driving logs from one point to another.

“The present law is a museum of regulations of the log driving industry,” write Gillies.  And they still remain on the books.

Selectmen determine the location of the boom in rivers and streams to hold back the logs, “and no boom may be anchored until the fees are paid,” Gillies writes.

“Should log drives come back, the law awaits them.”

Packed into this big book — which can easily be read as an anthology — is a chapter on what Gillies understandably calls “Luminaries,” former Supreme Court Justices.  As profiles they run the gambit from Nathaniel Chipman — who in 1786 at 33 years old was elected to serve on the Supreme Court — to Justice F. Ray Keyser, who joined the Court in 1964.

Justice Chipman was Vermont’s foremost legal scholar, but what he contributed to the state’s legal foundation is, in Gillies’ view, the lynchpin to what we have become today as a society.

In his Sketches of the Principles of Government, written in 1793, Justice Chipman took a very benign and, at the time, radical view of human nature.  People do not need a government to protect themselves from each other, because they have a natural “relish for society.”

In other words, writes Gillies, “human beings in Chipman’s view were drawn intuitively to society, order, and organization as a fulfillment of their quest for happiness and social improvement.”

Among his peers, Gillies says, Chipman was a lawyer who liked to play in deep waters but had difficulty when it came to sustaining a lawyer-client relationship.

The profiles make up a hefty third of the book, which may explain why Gillies offered a writer’s disclaimer before forging ahead.

“Each essay is a violation against the law of practicing psychology without a license, but the perfume of the temptation is irresistible against the possible odor of the risk,” he writes.

Gillies concluded his book with a lengthy examination of Act 250, whose significance for Vermont he underscores by writing:

“In 1969, there was Woodstock, Vietnam, the moon landing, the Manson murders, and Act 250.”

He credits Governor Deane Davis for seeing the need and the 1970 Legislature for following through to pursue “a public interest in traditionally private matters when it comes to land and how it is used.”

Gillies says that Act 250 has reached maturity, and traces its evolution over four decades.  The results over the first ten years were mixed, or constitute what the author calls a difficult childhood.  By 1980, he says the Act “had found its bearings,” after the Legislature eliminated the “ten-acre loophole,” which took away lot size as an exemption from Act 250 review.

The third decade, “its most difficult,” saw wrangles with the Legislature over membership on the Environmental Board.  An Environmental Court was created.  Accusations proliferated that the Act 250 process was too unwieldy.  Gillies called it a time for retrenchment.

Throughout its fourth decade, which began in 2000, Act 250’s power to regulate was diminished by the Legislature and the High Court, according to Gillies.

Speaking of the Act as a process, the author writes:  “It has been revised almost as often as educational theory.  What other law has had to be saved so often?”

As a lawyer, Gillies has made his mark by representing towns.  Before ancient roads became such a hot political issue, he may have been municipal government’s first road warrior.  To that end, he is also the first historian to study the state’s past by looking at its routes of travel.

“The developing road network is a revelation of several centuries of community evolution,” he writes.

“This is the beginning of the golden age of Vermont highway law.”

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

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Peter Miller captures Vermont characters

The late Carroll Shatney, on the cover of Peter Miller’s new book.

The late Carroll Shatney, on the cover of Peter Miller’s new book.

A Lifetime of Vermont People, with photographs and text by Peter Miller; 208 pages in hardback; published by Silver Print Press; $49.95.

Reviewed by Chris Braithwaite

Any Northeast Kingdom resident who picks up Peter Miller’s extraordinarily handsome new book will see a lot of familiar faces.

Anne and Jack Lazor come up first, and Mr. Miller’s nighttime photograph of their Butterworks Farm in Westfield is among the best in the book.

That’s a surprise, because A Lifetime of Vermont People, as the name suggests, is a collection of portraits, supplemented with Mr. Miller’s insightful commentaries on his subjects.

Next up is Peter Johnson of Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury.  Then there’s a shot of one of fisherman Roger Elkins’ favorite spots, the Willoughby River falls in Orleans.

There’s a charming portrait of Peter and Elka Schumann at their home overlooking Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover, closely followed by an iconic shot of Bill Royer playing his fiddle at a Sheffield Old Home Day, accompanied on the banjo by a shockingly young Burt Porter of Glover.

Greensboro Bend farmer Carroll Shatney, who died in 2009, is on the book’s cover.  Colleen Goodridge and her sons pose at their cedar mill in Albany; brewmaster Shaun Hill chats with his father in Greensboro; the poet David Budbill meditates under a tree at his home in Wolcott; and novelist Howard Frank Mosher, rod in hand, strolls back to his Irasburg home from a fishing expedition.

The 60 profiles Mr. Miller includes in his book pretty much cover the state of Vermont.  But its generous proportion of Kingdom characters reflects the photographer’s fondness for the area.

Indeed, he said while waiting for a book signing session to get underway at The Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick Friday evening, he’s looking for a new home in the area.

Mr. Miller has lived in Colbyville, near Waterbury, since 1968.  But the ever-increasing traffic on Route 100 is finally getting to him.

And the Kingdom may turn out to be the final habitat of the quarry Mr. Miller has been stalking through his long career in photography.

“We are losing those Vermonters who have made this state unique,” he writes in his introduction.  “These are the people who love their state for its beauty, but they revere it more for the freedom and privacy it has given them.  Most of the Vermonters I grew up with are farmers, woodsmen, and craftspeople.  They are self-employed and self-reliant.”

Mr. Miller’s decision to present his portraits in black and white — though he shoots them in color with a digital camera — underlines the emphasis he puts on the state’s character, rather than its ever-so-well-documented scenic beauty.

It was the right decision, and it gives his new book a timeless quality that reflects the five decades he has spent capturing the spirit of the odd souls he so admires.

It began in 1959 with Will and Rowena Austin of Weston.  Mr. Miller was a neighbor who dropped by to visit the Austins on their front porch, carrying along his twin-lens Roliflex.

The farm couple is on the cover of Mr. Miller’s 1990 collection, Vermont People, and they appear again in his new book.

But A Lifetime of Vermont People is much enriched by the author’s notes that follow some of his profiles.  It is here that the photographer talks about that problem faced by everyone who works with a camera — the reluctant subject:

“I was a shy kid, more comfortable alone in the woods, but I felt at home with Will and Rowena.  I asked if I could take some photographs.

“‘Why sure,’ said Will.

“‘Goodness NO!’ said Rowena.  She stood, plucked up her dress and flounced into the house.  What they didn’t know is that, while talking, I photographed each with the camera in my lap.”

Rowena eventually came around, and one of the finest photographs in the book is of her making her way up the path to her house with the mail on a winter’s morning — a stout old woman leaning on her cane while a young cat, Canon Ball, prances behind her.

Another such note reveals that Mr. Miller worked for one of the twentieth century’s greatest photographers, Yousuf Karsh, of Ottawa, Canada.

Mr. Karsh took formal, carefully posed portraits of some of his era’s most famous people.  Mr. Miller decided he was more interested in photojournalism, and left his mentor for a stint with Life Magazine before turning to freelance work.

But, he notes, he assimilated a lot from Mr. Karsh:

“I learned to read a face and fathom a personality, how to hold a conversation with my subjects and show them respect.  I use a tripod (most of the time) and set off the camera with a cable release so I stand and face my subject as Karsh did.  On my own I learned how to combine a persona with their environment.”

Those were lessons well learned, and the results, in Mr. Miller’s new book, are well worth seeing.

Peter Miller is one of three Vermont photographers whose work is currently featured at the Old Stone House in Brownington.  “Visions of Place” includes the work of Peter Miller, John Miller and Richard Brown.  It will be at the museum through October 13, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

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Potter spins yarn of magic in trilogy debut

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cheryl potter bookReviewed by Joseph Gresser

Fantasy novels generally fall into the pattern set for the genre by J.R.R. Tolkien in his Lord of The Rings trilogy.  A group of men with swords, axes, clubs and other whacking and hacking implements go off to set a wrong to rights.

Barton author Cheryl Potter sends her heroines out on their perilous mission armed with knitting needles, needles used for their intended purpose, not for stabbing or even poking.

She has conjured up a world where a group of past-their-prime women must find a way to use their style of domestic magic to save the world.

That world is on the verge of dying either by fire or by ice in accordance with a prophecy.

Their world is not necessarily the one in which we live.  Its history includes an earlier calamity that resulted in its original inhabitants being buried under a glacier.

Now, a renegade member of the Potluck Twelve, a group of women devoted to the magic of the dye pot, leads the forces of the south in an attempt to melt the glacier, for unknown but disturbing reasons.

Among the members of the long scattered twelve are Sierra Blue, a knitter whose work is not only beautiful, but is also imbued with magical properties that can enhance the wearer’s natural abilities.

She, her daughter, Skye, and her two sons Warren and Garth, are at the center of the first volume of the Potluck Yarn Trilogy.  They are required to brave the perils of a journey to the Northlands in answer to the summons of Aubergine, the leader of the knitting witches.

Most of the remaining members of the circle also feel Aubergine’s call and are irresistibly drawn to their former home where their leader hopes the group’s former magic can be revived.

Ms. Potter creates a lively community of women, talented but flawed.  Their journey to Bordertown is fraught with peril, but the women meet the dangers with cleverness rather than force.

That is exactly the point of the book, Ms. Potter said in a telephone interview Tuesday.  Ms. Potter, who lives in Barton where she runs Cherry Tree Hill Yarn, spoke from Arizona where she was on a book tour.

Most fantasy adventures, she said, “are about men who like to hurt each other and are full of blood and guts.  I want to empower girls.”

For this reason, Ms. Potter said she centered the first of her projected trilogy around the magic of women.  As a fiber artist herself, Ms. Potter said she feels close to the witches conjured up by her imagination.

Those involved in the spinning community speak of the magic of the dye pot.  Yarn, she explained, reacts to dyes in unpredictable ways, but the fibers are forgiving.  If a batch turns out unsatisfactorily it can always be returned to the pot for another try.

Ms. Potter makes the connection between knitting yarn and a yarn as a long tale explicit in her book.  The witches’ power comes not only from the mystic crystals they use to color the fleeces they will spin.

It also grows from the tales they tell as they do their work.  Sierra Blue, one of the most powerful of the sisterhood, is also the one entrusted with the keeping of almost all the group’s stories.

Telling the story of The Broken Circle is a new endeavor for Ms. Potter who has achieved success in her business life and who has previously published six books of knitting patterns as well as several short stories.

She said she is most of the way through the second volume of the trilogy and, judging by the hints and spoilers she let drop during her interview, has a clear idea of where the twists and turns of the yarn will eventually lead.

Ms. Potter was willing to say that the second volume would investigate the lives of Sierra’s sons, who as boys are excluded from the magic circle.

She said the first three chapters and a picture of the second volume, Secrets of the Lost Caves, will soon be released on her website, potluckyarn.com.

The site also contains other materials that Ms. Potter hopes will make her books useful to teachers and home-schoolers.  The student workbook, which is available as a free download, includes vocabulary lists, discussion questions and questions devised to prompt analytical reasoning, Ms. Potter said.

She also created a separate book of patterns inspired by the magical garments featured throughout the book.  The pattern book is available for sale in a paperback edition or as an e-book, Ms. Potter said.

Ms. Potter said the novel can be appreciated without knitting any of the patterns and said it was intended to enhance some readers’ experience.

She said that she decided to publish the book herself because she wanted to create materials such as the pattern book and the student workbook, which she said commercial publishers would consider a waste of money.

Self-publishing, Ms. Potter added, allowed her to decide to devote resources to making the book attractive.  No other publisher, she said, would have been willing to hire the artist Frank Riccio to do the cover painting and the drawings that appear throughout the book.

Ms. Potter also said that large commercial publishers might not be as willing to provide books to small independent bookstores in quantities they can afford.

She said that she is committed to encouraging young people to read and is eager to speak to groups whenever and wherever it is possible to do so.

In the meanwhile, Ms. Potter said she is hunkered down in a cabin putting the finishing touches on Secrets of the Lost Caves and creating new tangles for the yarns of the knitting witches.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

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An overdue look at a complicated subject

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grief book webcopyright the chronicle September 4, 2013

The Disenfranchised, Stories of Life and Grief When an Ex-spouse Dies, edited by Peggy Sapphire.  Baywood Publishing Company, Inc., Amityville, New York.  Paperback.  217 pages.  $49.95.

Reviewed by Tena Starr

Some time ago a friend called to say that her ex-husband had died.  It was startling, it was sad, of course, and it was unfamiliar ground.

How, I wondered, did she experience her ex-husband’s death?  Obviously she grieved on behalf of her children, but what about herself?

How exactly does one feel about the death of a person once beloved enough that the plan was to spend the rest of life together, but years later is maybe no more than an acquaintance, perhaps even disliked — but still connected through children and mutual history?

These are the questions Peggy Sapphire, a counselor and poet from Craftsbury, sets out to answer in this fascinating book, an anthology of heartfelt, first-person stories written by people who have experienced the death of a former partner.

The Disenfranchised tackles a complex and overlooked subject, one that many will find themselves grappling with as divorce rates climb and the population ages.  As a former spouse, you’re likely not expected to deal with funeral arrangements, burial, or all the other important and, in some ways soothing, rituals that go with death.  If your ex has remarried, perhaps you’re not expected to make more than a perfunctory appearance, maybe none at all.  Personal grief could be slight, or it could be overwhelming.

But in either event, the surviving spouse is often “disenfranchised,” maybe not expected to mourn at all.

“The writers whose work you are about to read were largely left to their own devices as they sought solace or needed compassion as they stood apart — the ‘ex,’” Ms. Sapphire wrote in the preface to the book.  “A few tell of compassionate friends and family, and in one case, an exquisitely sensitive clergyman.  But for most, no such condolence was forthcoming.”

Judging from the stories told in this book, there’s nothing simple about dealing with the death of a former spouse.  The men and women who responded to Ms. Sapphire’s request for their stories tell complicated ones jumbled by a whole stew of emotions:  grief, anger, resentment, relief, guilt, and regret.

There’s Rosemary, for instance, who felt anger at the timing of her ex-husband’s death and its effect on their children — even in death he had managed to disrupt the lives of his children, she said.

She also expressed relief.  “After his death, I just kept telling myself, ‘thank God it’s over,’” she wrote.  “Finally there would be no more havoc wreaked by this man.  There would be aftermath, yes, but nothing freshly complicating coming at us.”

Many of these stories are harsh.  No one goes through divorce unscathed.  Through necessity the essayists here take a look at the marriage itself and the reasons why it died, in many cases an explanation for how the surviving spouse responds to the subsequent death of a former partner.

If there’s any common thread, it’s maybe best illustrated by Elizabeth, who tells the story of her first marriage, the unexpected death of her ex-husband, and the equally unexpected feelings of loss that accompanied it.

They were married young, in the early 1970s, both considering themselves, in their ways, a part of the counterculture of that time.

“He wanted to be a radical, and I wanted to be a hippie,” Elizabeth wrote.  “I saw him as a way to get revenge on my conservative grandparents; he viewed my trust fund with desire.  We played a lot of Scrabble, smoked a lot of dope, and went to college.  Reality set in when our daughter was born in 1975.  It was time to grow up and get jobs, which I did.”

They divorced, went their ways, and changed enough that the once radical young husband was in the process of trying to get his early marriage annulled — infuriating Elizabeth — in order to become a better Catholic, when he suddenly died.

“When I answered the phone and heard my daughter say, “Dad’s dead,’ I actually said, ‘You’re kidding.’”

Elizabeth had hoped for some sort of reconciliation as time passed; now it was too late, and the depth of her grief took her aback.

“Even though you were divorced, there’s a lot of history there,” she wrote.  “The more I let myself feel the more I realized the loss.  There was no one else who remembered when I worked for The Galloping Gourmet.  He was the one who helped me with the first awkwardness of motherhood.

“An entire clump of my life had just disappeared.  It wasn’t until he was gone that I understand how important he’d been to me.”

To complicate matters, no one else grasped how important he’d been either.  The support of family and friends, who would help mourn the death of a spouse, was largely absent in the case of an ex-spouse.

“No friends seemed to understand how the death of someone I’d never even mentioned could hurt so much,” Elizabeth wrote.

Ms. Sapphire is not, herself, dealing with the death of a former spouse, but her ex-husband has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, she said, and chances are good that she will be one of the disenfranchised.

Referring to her children, she wrote, “With their father’s death will come the death of my only companion and witness to the intimacies and circumstances of 17 years of marriage, begun when I was 20 and he was 23…the first marriage for each of us, two pregnancies, first birthings, first parenting anxieties, early poverty, first professional positions, first home and mortgage, first credit card debt, first and continuous arguments about money, first and fatal disenchantments.  These are the thoughts that led to my decision to seek the stories you’ll find here.”

Each of those stories is followed with commentary by Shirley Scott, a grief counselor who takes a look at how and why the essayists here feel the way they do.  The book also notes that a recent report indicates that 78 percent of those who survived the death of a former spouse reported feeling grief.

What a complex subject Peggy Sapphire has so beautifully tackled.  The stories, and the poetry, in this book are deeply personal, well written, often painful, and always enlightening.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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Hand Artists introduces sign language

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Pictured is Jan Caswell, a Derby Line native, holding her book, Hand Artists.  Photo by Natalie Hormilla

Pictured is Jan Caswell, a Derby Line native, holding her book, Hand Artists. Photo by Natalie Hormilla

by Natalie Hormilla

When Jan Caswell was growing up in Derby Line, she had no idea what sort of career lay in her future.  Now, after 40 years of working with deaf people in a variety of ways, she’s created a book that introduces American Sign Language and deaf culture, entitled Hand Artists.

Ms. Caswell said she basically fell into working with deaf people.

“It’s given me a career for 40 years, and I have met some people who are just fascinating,” she said in an interview with the Chronicle.

After graduating from North Country Union High School’s second class, in 1969, Ms. Caswell went to the University of Connecticut.  She said she thought she’d return to the Northeast Kingdom, but took a job at the Austine School for the Deaf in Brattleboro, on a lark.

“I needed a job and I wanted to be back in Vermont,” she said.  The job was to be a dormitory counselor at the Austine school.

“I lived in a separate house with 25 girls between the ages of 16 and 21,” she said.  All the girls were deaf students at Austine.

“I was like the big sister,” she said.

Ms. Caswell was 22 years old at the time, and had no previous experience in sign language.  She was told she wouldn’t need to know sign for the job.

“That was too scary,” she said.

As luck would have it, Ms. Caswell knew a returning senior at Austine who lived in Newport.  Ms. Caswell asked to borrow the girl’s yearbook, and taught herself how to letter spell each student’s name so she would at least have an entry point for conversation once she got to Austine.

Ms. Caswell picked up American Sign Language very quickly once she got to Austine.

“In six weeks, I was fluent,” she said.

“It was hands-on the minute I started.”  Ms. Caswell said the girls would try to tell her dirty jokes in American Sign Language.
“I wouldn’t understand them.  I’d sign, ‘slow,’ ‘again.’”

That job marked the beginning of a lifelong love for signing.  Since then, Ms. Caswell has worked as the Vermont state coordinator of services for the deaf, as an educational interpreter in California, as a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the deaf in Massachusetts, and she even worked as the interpreter on Madeline Kunin’s gubernatorial campaign, among other things.

“I’ve done everything you can do — I think.”

She said that she is sometimes mistaken as being a deaf person, rather than a hearing person.

Ms. Caswell said that her kids really encouraged her to publish a book after learning that she had written some stories, just for fun.

After she wrote the book, she used the online funding platform Kickstarter to gather money for publishing expenses.

Kickstarter allows for people from just about anywhere to donate to a project, whether because they know the project creator or they just think it’s a cool idea.

Ms. Caswell said that she raised most of the $6,600 she needed through Kickstarter.  Donations ranged from $5 to $500.
“People donated from all over:  Alaska, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, California, Oregon, Arizona, Vermont, Connecticut, Florida,” she said.

She said some people who weren’t at all connected to her or even the deaf community donated money.

The donations were helpful because, as Ms. Caswell put it, “I’m not going to make millions.  It’s really a work of love.”

Ms. Caswell brought on a late-deafened woman, Stephanie Labrie, to be the illustrator.
“Steph had never done anything professionally before,” she said.

Ms. Labrie used watercolor pencils, which allow for colors that are deep and bold.

“When you take a 3-D language and put it on a 2-D page, it’s extremely difficult,” Ms. Caswell said.

Hand Artists is a very colorful book that tells the story of Kyleigh, a deaf girl, and Erin, a hearing girl, who are best friends.  American Sign Language is interspersed throughout the pages.  The discerning reader will learn the signs for different letters, numbers, and even words like “story” and “goal.”  The illustrator used curved arrows to indicate the hand motions needed for more complicated signs.

“It’s an opportunity to learn a little bit about sign, but it’s not something to ‘teach’ sign with,” Ms. Caswell said.  “It’s meant to introduce it.”  The book is also meant to be an introduction to deaf culture.

“My friends who are educators said it’s most likely for five-to-ten-year-olds, but older kids can benefit, too,” she said.  “It’s meant for whomever, or for hearing people who want to learn a little more about sign.”

Ms. Caswell said that about a dozen teachers, from Ontario, Canada, to western Massachusetts, have ordered the book for their classrooms.
Ms. Caswell lives in western Massachusetts, but she said she still considers Vermont her home, and visits her parents in Derby Line often.

Hand Artists is available at Wider Than the Sky in Newport, the Woodknot Bookshop in Newport, Barnes and Noble, and amazon.com.

contact Natalie Hormilla at natalie@bartonchronicle.com

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A practical guide to the future of farming

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Farms Future bookFarms With a Future; Creating and Growing a Sustainable Farm Business, by Rebecca Thistlethwaite, foreword by Richard Wiswall, published by Chelsea Green in White River Junction, Vermont, 2013; paperback, 336 pages, $29.95.

Reviewed by Bethany M. Dunbar

Rebecca Thistlethwaite has put together one of the most useful and entertaining books about farming I’ve read in a long time.  Everyone who dreams of starting a small farm needs to check this book out.

The author is not modest about her intentions:

“This book is about creating a new paradigm for doing business, one that will last into the future, taking care of both our planet and all of our inhabitants (human or otherwise),” Ms. Thistlethwaite declares at one point.  That comment came on page 226.  If it was on the first page, I might have stopped reading.  But by page 226 I knew that it was an accurate statement, and that her efforts could and probably actually will bear fruit.

With the local food movement in full swing around here, there are all kinds of people hoping to get involved and seeing farming as a romantic lifestyle.  If you know anyone with those feelings, urge them to read Ms. Thistlethwaite’s book before they get in too deep.  She includes information on bookkeeping, marketing, pricing strategies, building up the soil, employees, working with family members, and many other practical matters often neglected at first.

“I don’t want you growing or raising a single thing until you have some concept for where you will sell it, to whom, for how much, and who your potential competition might be,” she writes.

But if the book was only a “how-to” I might have become bored after a few pages.  Instead, the book was written by a woman who has farmed herself and decided to take a year off those endeavors to travel around the United States and interview some of the most successful farmers out there about their ideas and methods.  These stories will be of interest to anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit, not just aspiring farmers.

Butterworks Farm in Westfield, the Lazor family, is one of the farms she has profiled.  In a chapter called, “Scaling up while keeping true,” Ms. Thistlethwaite tells their story.

“What first started out as a homestead for this couple of back-to-the-landers has turned into one of the most successful organic farmstead creameries in the nation,” she writes.  They bought their 60-acre farm in 1976 for $20,000.  It was money Anne Lazor’s parents’ had saved for her to attend graduate school.  Instead it was their initial investment, and Butterworks Farm has grown from there.

Jack Lazor has written his own book, and on Sunday in Newport from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Gateway Center his new book, The Organic Grain Grower, also published by Chelsea Green, will make its debut.  Eliot Coleman, an organic farmer and writer from Maine, and Brent Beidler, president of the Northern Grain Growers Association, will be on hand for the event.  Mr. Coleman wrote a foreword for Mr. Lazor’s book.

Butterworks is one of 15 case studies of farms across the nation in Ms. Thistlethwaite’s book.   She interviewed the farmers featured in case studies and a half dozen others — people who are growing and selling everything from soup to nuts.

The book is packed with ideas for creative financing, marketing, and production.  It’s an encouraging book for those in the right frame of mind.  Those who just want to buy land and shiny tractors won’t like this book.  But those who really want to build a farm that can keep going will be glad of all the advice and ideas.

Some farmers might read it and weep, at least at first.  For example, Ms. Thistlethwaite tells of a chicken farmer who paid an employee to water the chickens without considering the cost of hiring that help versus buying an automatic waterer.

“Oblivious to this information, he will continue to spend around $11,000 a year on labor costs for watering (his employee is paid $15 an hour).  An automatic system would be just a fraction of that cost and last him for many years to come.  This particular farmer is not currently profitable and is always on the verge of throwing in the towel.  He could be putting $11,000 in his pocket each year, which might turn his business around for good.”

Ms. Thistlethwaite’s take-away advice:  “Find out what a typical enterprise budget looks like for the crops and animals you produce.  If your income or expenses look dramatically different than those budgets, do some research to find out why they vary so much.  It may be that some of your expenses are way beyond the norm.”

If you as a farmer don’t like bookkeeping or can’t afford to hire a bookkeeper, maybe you can trade food for services, she suggests.  The potential for barter is a common theme in Farms With a Future.

“USDA Economic Research Service report estimated local food sales totaled $4.8-billion in 2008 (direct to consumers or direct to restaurants/retailers), and the report predicted that figure would reach $7-billion in 2011.  Because of the nature of data limitations, it is more likely that local food sales, including the value of barter and trade, have a much higher economic value than this and are continuing to grow by leaps and bounds.”

Farms included in Ms. Thistlethwaite’s case studies include Shady Grove Ranch in Jefferson, Texas.  It’s the story of a young couple, Matt and Jerica Cadman, who were studying engineering and came to agriculture through health issues that led them to find better food.

“Matt was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an ‘incurable’ inflammatory bowel disease,” she writes.  The couple spent two years battling the illness with conventional methods, including hospitalization and drugs, and doctors suggested that at age 22, Matt should have his colon removed.

“In their research on alternative therapies, the demise of vitamins, minerals, and health fats in the American diet became apparent.  The Cadmans started adding grassfed beef, pastured poultry and eggs, and raw milk to their diet, but had to drive all over the state to acquire these products, which were hard to find in East Texas.  By creating their own farm, they were able to get Matt healthy and provide healthier food for people around them.

Ms. Thistlethwaite is clearly devoted to organic and old-fashioned methods, but she urges new farmers to seek help and advice from conventional farmers as well:

“You can glean good information from even the big guys, so don’t write them off just because they are conventional.  With their years of experience, chances are they know more about your animals than you do,” she writes.

Matt and Jerica Cadman have something in common with another couple Ms. Thistlethwaite interviewed, Jennifer Argraves and Louis Sukovaty of Crown S. Ranch in Winthrop, Washington — an engineering background.  Both spent ten years working as engineers in Seattle before deciding to start a farm.  Their research led them to read pre-World War II agricultural research about farming methods before chemicals and nitrogen fertilizers were so heavily used.

Not all farmers have a background in engineering, but this couple came up with an idea that would have been labeled Yankee ingenuity if someone in New England first thought of it:  a solar-powered chicken tractor which drags broiler hens slowly over pasture land.

“A solar panel mounted on the chicken tractor slowly charges the battery, which runs a small motor that moves a set of wheels.  This moves the chicken tractor in small increments, about four inches every half hour, so that the broiler chickens inside can always have access to fresh pasture.”

Farms With a Future is full of this kind of idea.  My only complaint about the book is that in all its discussion of marketing and getting to know your consumers, and so much emphasis on the web and social media, it barely mentions local newspapers as a good way to draw new customers and bring the old ones back every week.  I know what you are thinking — I’m biased.  But the fact is, print media works.  Neglecting it means losing out on new business, and current customers might forget to come back.  So my two cents here is this:  don’t forget your local newspapers when you think about how to sell your local food.

Congratulations to Rebecca Thistlethwaite and thanks — for writing a book that will be useful for lots of people.  It could help some farmers get started, help others to decide they don’t want to invest a lot of money in a difficult enterprise, and help someone struggling to figure out ways to turn his or her business around.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

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Hoagland novel tells tales of human courage

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hoagland review-1Children are Diamonds, by Edward Hoagland.  Published by Arcade Publishing, New York, New York, 2013.  213 pages. $23.95.

Reviewed by Paul Lefebvre 

What to think of a 30-something-year-old schoolteacher who got fired from his job in New Hampshire, absconded from a sinking ship with his company’s money, and went on the lam into central Africa, where he became a jack-of-all-trades, bringing food and medicine into a ravaged war zone where boy soldiers cut the intestines out of their dead victims and wear them around their necks like a necklace?

Or a woman in her early fifties, a relief worker with Protestants Against Famine, manning an outpost in the bush overrun by refugees speaking many tribal tongues, where she mothers orphans, treats diseases, war wounds, and all the myriad health complications that go with malnutrition and starvation without cutting any slack for herself?

“You have to believe in heaven, and I don’t know if I do,” she says at one point.

Ruth and Hickey are the two riveting characters in Edward Hoagland’s admirable novel, Children are Diamonds.  Each is flawed in ways both morally and spiritually, and each bring to Africa a different kind of American than we are used to seeing, either in other works of fiction or in the history of Western imperialism or colonization.

When it comes to novels set in faraway places few can match what Hoagland achieves in a story that unflinchingly comes to grips with the courage it takes to be human in the face of a time when there is so little to gain.  That it’s a story set in what was once called the “Dark Continent” makes it all the more daunting.

The Africa that Hoagland sets his novel in is the Africa where war and hunger have become the norm of daily life.  It’s the Africa of Idi Amin, whose brutal rule of Uganda has been replaced by tribal warlords who run outfits like the Lord’s Resistance Army, which kidnaps children during village raids and turns them into soldiers by a gruesome ritual that forces them to eat the organs of their murdered parents.  It’s an Africa where the people have been uprooted and displaced, strafed by Russian MiGs in service to the same Arabs who hire blacks from Darfur to do their fighting in the bush.  And it’s an Africa where there are no second chances.

“In Africa, everything is an emergency,” Hoagland writes in the first line of the novel.  “Your radiator blows out and as you solder a repair job, Lango kids emerge from the bush, belonging to a village that you’ll never see, reachable by a path you hadn’t noticed.”

Although one is armed with a Kalashnikov, they are not depicted as threatening, only hungry.  Survival for a white man like Hickey depends on his ability to keep a balance between “friendliness and mystery.”

As a writer, Hoagland cut his teeth on essays and travel pieces, with a novel tossed in every now and then, like the fisherman who fishes in streams for brook trout and occasionally tries his hand spin-casting for bass in still waters, using what he has learned about fish and his own ability to catch them.  In Children are Diamonds, Hoagland combines the wisdom of a seasoned traveler with a novelist’s imagination in writing a book that takes us through a country few of us have seen, through emotions we have seldom if ever felt, and delivers us into a troubled land where unspeakable atrocities suddenly explode.

What better setting could there be for a rolling stone character like Hickey, who moves back and forth between guiding tourists and bedding airplane stewardesses to trucking food into relief camps, “pussyfooting slowly through Lord’s Resistance Army rebel territory in northern Uganda?”  Hickey may be a likeable survivor — the kind you might enjoy talking to over a beer in a bar — but he becomes endearingly heroic when he throws caution to the wind for a woman, a hard-nosed relief worker, who could be his older sister.

Courage is often what we think of when someone risks life and limb for some greater good or noble purpose.  Hoagland tell us that you don’t have to be a doctor to hand out aspirin or Kaopectate, and that it takes very little to be human or brave in the eyes of those looking for a shred of hope.

“The old stone-and-concrete ruins of a Catholic chapel that had been forgotten since the colonial powers had left could be reoccupied, if you chased the leopards and the cobras out and joy, I think, is, like photosynthesis for plants, an evidence of God,” he writes.

Against his belief that the laws of survival are poised to turn against him, Hickey goes into the bush where doom is about to descent on Ruth and her outpost.  A temporary truce in the fighting has ended.  Two white Norwegian doctors and a nurse already have been killed, and everyone who can flee — from aid workers to refugees — is fleeing, except Ruth.

She is the novel’s Mother Courage.  “She shouldn’t be stranded,” says an accomplice of Hickey, who may or may not be a CIA spook.  In one of their early encounters, Hickey watches her as she mixes powdered milk while a toddler clings to her — a malnourished toddler with a “head disproportionately large because skulls can’t shrink.”  Leo, named after a missionary priest, becomes her African diamond.

So into the fray Hickey goes.  The fact that he and Ruth are both white may or may not be a plus.  There is the spearman who warns the fleeing whites of mines in the road, but refuses to guide them.

“He’s telling you you people have the atom bomb so what do you need him for?” says one of the African assistants who, though loyal to Ruth, has no love for the West.

As the opposing armies close on one another, those in the know seek a solitary escape route as “they slid into the forest like fish wiggling into a reef.”  But for Hickey and Ruth there is no looking out for themselves first.  Their jeep is loaded with crippled passengers, and leading the way are the healthy children ready to warn any guerrillas waiting in ambush that the vehicle behind them contains white people who are “not to be casually shot.”

In the end there may be no possibility of escape for Ruth and Hickey who defined themselves by “where we were.”  And they are in Africa, where “everything is an emergency,” which is something each appears to desire and need.

Aside from being a novel about courage and morality, Children are Diamonds is a novel about landscape — a landscape of rivers and their feeder streams, of mountains and valleys that Hoagland renders with the deft touch of a cartographer and the imagination of an artist.  If you want to visit Africa close and up front and don’t have the wherewithal to get there, reading this novel may be your best option.

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

For an interview with Mr. Hoagland, click here.

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Book review: A requiem for Rocky

review crossing webReviewed by Garret Keizer

Crossing Jack Brook:  Love and Death in the Woods, by Paul Lefebvre.  Published by Beck Pond Books.  169 pages.   Paperback.  $20.

Your odds of finding a four-leaf clover on your first try are roughly on a par with those of being injured by a toilet seat, about one in 10,000.  You have at least a seven times better chance of becoming President of the United States than winning at Powerball with your first ticket, though in the former case multiple variables come into play, such as whether and where you went to college and in which rest room, ladies’ or gents’, you’re entitled to test your luck with a toilet seat.

However you choose to place your bets, few factors reliably alter the odds of surviving the love of your life.  No matter where you live, how many minutes a day you exercise, or whether your beloved is a Methodist, a lesbian, or a canary, those odds are essentially the same.  One in two.

For that reason, books about grieving a dear companion’s death — Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, and, closer to home, Edie Clark’s The Place He Made and Donald Hall’s Without — are among the most useful on the shelves.  That doesn’t mean they’re always the most readable or will all deserve to be called beautiful.  Chronicle reporter and columnist Paul Lefebvre’s Crossing Jack Brook is both.

It’s also three captivating stories for the price of one.  The most prominent is about the sickness and death of the artist Elin K. Paulson, Lefebvre’s long-time partner, which he tells without a trace of morbidity.  Nicknamed “Rocky” for her passion for collecting rocks, Paulson comes across as a fascinatingly complex character:  “a bohemian woman” who did not like to be called a hippie, a nature-lover who did not care to grow a garden, a pacifist who loved John Brown.  We can wonder about all of that, but we never wonder why Lefebvre loved Paulson.  After only a few pages, we’re pretty fond of her too.

In the symbolism of their love affair, Lefebvre fleshes out his second big story:  the initial clash and ultimate fusion of two tribes that occurred when the migratory counterculture of the 1960s met the indigenous counterculture of the Northeast Kingdom.  Lefebvre and Paulson come across as representative, if highly individualized, members of their respective tribes:

he an Island Pond native of French Canadian extraction with railway men and loggers in his family and roots in the Kingdom that go back as far as 1799; she the down-country daughter of a Catholic-Worker couple, artisans and homesteaders devoted to a movement that was talking about peace, love, and communal living before there were television sets and atom bombs.

Mixing these diverse elements, Lefebvre gives us a darker, more viscous narrative than that fancy-grade syrup that often gets poured over things “Vermont.”  He also introduces us to a motley cast of characters:  the Count and the Commissioner, “the girls of Lost Nation,” and the denizens of Mad Brook Farm, will-o’-the-wisp hermits and stoned entrepreneurs, gun-packing truckers and the activist priest Bob Castle, aka “Reverend Slick.”  At Lefebvre’s hunting camp we hear “anthems to those who have prepared liver and onions on a cookstove, brought bottles of whiskey to Thanksgiving Day dinner, and left the air charged with the pungent odor of Hoppes #9 oil from cleaning their guns at the kitchen table.”  Well, many of us have been to a hunting camp, but few of us could describe it like Lefebvre.

So we are not surprised that the third main story of Crossing Jack Brook is about becoming a writer, not only as a way of making a living but also as a way of fighting for one’s life.  The theme is clear from his first paragraph:

“When the woman I lived with became ill with cancer in 2005, I began writing about it in a column I had been writing for a weekly newspaper in northern Vermont.  When she died about nine months later, I continued to write about her because it was the only thing I could do.  I am not a religious man or a deeply spiritual one, but for years I have earned a living as a reporter and have come to rely on the power of words.”

Lefebvre’s columns about Paulson, their adventures together, and other features of their shared life in the Kingdom are interspersed throughout the book, dated and titled as they were when they debuted in the Chronicle.  Some readers might wish that Lefebvre had taken apart these pieces and reworked the material into one seamless whole.  I happen not to be one of them.  The juxtaposition of what Lefebvre wrote in his columns and what he writes in Crossing Jack Brook adds much to the texture — and pleasure — of his narrative.  In a book that is nothing if not a memoir, the technique works like memory itself, moving us backwards and forward in time.

We move easily because he keeps things clear.  Lefebvre is an unpretentious stylist, a straight shooter, never sentimental but unafraid of revealing his heart.  Like the best prose writers in what William Carlos Williams called “the American grain,” he knows about real stuff:  how to pitch a tent, fell a tree, build a deck.  He also knows the stuff of history:  You will learn about how ice used to be harvested on Island Pond and the etiquette of old logging camps.  You will even learn a thing or two about the Civil War.

And you will hear some funny stories.  Perhaps my favorite has to do with a chimney fire that erupts at the ramshackle house of one of the author’s drinking buddies just as they’re about to leave for a night at the bar.  “The fire will either burn out or the place will burn down,” his friend says.  “We’ll find out later.”  So off they go.

The result of Lefebvre’s use of lore and laughter is that we experience none of the claustrophobia that we’d expect from a book informed by a terminal illness.  (Nor, I’m relieved to say, is Lefebvre the type of eulogist who uses humor in an attempt to make mortality sound cute.)  Much of this expansiveness is achieved through the deft characterization of Paulson herself.  She is never less than a lively presence.  The writer Dorothy Parker’s famous retort to the news that Calvin Coolidge had died — “How can they tell?” — could never apply to Elin Paulson.

I never knew her, by the way, and except for reading some of Lefebvre’s columns and buying fresh fish from him in Newport many years ago (only lately did I realize that the wordsmith and the fishmonger were the same guy), I don’t know him either.  But his account of their life together reminds me of men and women I met when I first arrived in the Kingdom — too late, I’m afraid, and too conventional to know their world well, but impressed by it from a distance and, more lately, saddened by a sense of  its passing.  For Lefebvre that sense is even stronger.

“[H]ome for the past year was beginning to resemble more and more a place where my friends were dying.  More and more a place I feared I no longer knew.  The Kingdom I knew was shrinking.  Land on both sides of the road to my house had been posted against trespassing.  A chain had been strung and locked across the road to hunting camp.”  It’s much to the author’s credit that he is able to convey a profound sense of loss even as he restores our awareness of what hasn’t yet and needn’t ever be lost completely.

The artwork accompanying Lefebvre’s text lends a hand in this.  The striking cover image of  Elizabeth Nelson’s painting of a rutted Kingdom road in early spring opens onto a gallery of color photographs, some of Lefebvre’s and Paulson’s family and friends, many of her magical paintings and picture poems (reminiscent of Kenneth Patchen and Paul Klee), a closing shot of her decorated grave.  Stained glass by Paulson’s father, Carl, and portraits of her by the painter Peter Miles (along with a photo of Miles himself) make for a fitting artist’s memorial.  This is not a coffee table book by any stretch, but for a while after I’d finished reading it, I kept it close to where I drink my coffee, because I liked waking up with the pictures.

Needless to say (at least for anyone who knows Lefebvre or his previous writings), Crossing Jack Brook is not a how-to manual about surviving grief.  When I called it useful before, I didn’t mean that it aimed to be.  It aims to be true, nothing less or more, and we trust it because the truth it discovers is complicated.  At one point during his bereavement, the gregarious Lefebvre exhorts himself to greater self-reliance:

“Usually I go to town on Sunday mornings, get coffee and a doughnut, pick up a paper, and begin a round of visiting friends.  Some Sundays we take rides through the woods or to camp or sometimes we do nothing at all except sit around, drink beer and talk.  It is nearly always enjoyable and it fills in the time.  But this morning I pulled up short.  Look to yourself for a change, I said.  Stop running away.”

Yet, in looking to himself “for a change,” he also finds a deeper sense of human solidarity and purpose, including the courage to call wisdom by its rightful name.

“Thankfully, not all wisdom comes with great loss — who could endure it if it were so? — yet there is a wisdom that death demands as its own.  And while grief may fling us into loneliness, it seems equally true that it welds us to a common lot.  Time is short, I tell myself.  Honor the dead by the life you lead.”

In Lefebvre’s case, “the life you lead” includes the words you write.  In a column he wrote in 2007, and includes near the end of Crossing Jack Brook, he says, “For the first few months, I carried Rocky’s death with me at nearly every step.  Anything short of that raised the fear I might lose her.  Now nearly 18 months later, I know she will never be lost to me.  I know where she resides.”

Thanks to Lefebvre’s stirring tribute, she also resides a little in us, and the odds of our forgetting her are close to none.

Garret Keizer’s most recent book is Privacy (2012).

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Reviews pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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