A history of Vermont through architecture

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architecture book webcopyright the Chronicle April 23, 2014

Buildings of Vermont, by Glenn M. Andres and Curtis B. Johnson. Published by University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville and London, 2014.  504 pages. Hardbound.  $85.

Reviewed by Joseph Gresser

Buildings of Vermont meets such an obvious need that it’s somewhat astonishing it didn’t already exist. It’s a book that belongs next to Esther M. Swift’s Vermont Place Names: Footprints of History on the shelf of anyone seriously interested in the state.

At first glance the book appears to be a catalog of noteworthy architecture in Vermont. It is that, but in detailing the variety of building styles it sheds new light on the history of the state.

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Did slavery in Vermont really end in 1777?

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This clipping is from a 1786 copy of the Vermont Gazette, and appears in the book The Problems of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777-1810.

This clipping is from a 1786 copy of the Vermont Gazette, and appears in the book The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777-1810.

copyright the Chronicle February 26, 2014

The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777-1810.  By Harvey Amani Whitfield.  Published by the Vermont Historical Society 2014.  140 pages with notes, documents and index.  $19.95

Reviewed by Paul Lefebvre

The assertion that Vermonters kept slaves into the early years of the nineteenth century not only skews the state’s constitutional ban on slavery but also calls into the question the historical belief we have of ourselves as a people who believe in live and let live.

Surely there can be no place for such a belief where men can live off other men’s labor and sell their children.  But that’s what historian Harvey Whitfield has found and documented in his new book, The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777-1810.

For those who don’t have the date on the tip of their tongue, 1777 was the year Vermonters formed a Constitution that abolished slavery.  Well, not quite.  What the framers actually abolished was adult slavery.  The children of the new black freemen could still be for sale.

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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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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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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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Tea Leaves explores the mother-daughter relationship

tea leavesby Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle 5-15-2013

Tea Leaves; a memoir of mothers and daughters, by Janet Mason, published by Bella Books, Tallahassee, Florida, 2012, paperback, 202 pages, $15.95.

I celebrated Mother’s Day pretty quietly this year.  My own mother died a little more than a year ago, so it was a time to think of her, which I always do anyway.  My thoughtful adult son came to see me with a basket of flowers.  My thoughtful boyfriend took me out and gave me flowers.  I had spent the week before with my thoughtful adult daughter in California seeing some great new music, some killer whales, and trying — completely unsuccessfully — not to freak out over traffic in Los Angeles.

To pass the time while waiting for airplanes on my way out and back, I brought with me a small paperback I thought might be good to read at this time.  It came to me last fall, when the author gave a talk at the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick.  Since the death of my own mom was so recent, I had to set this book aside.  A book about a daughter my age taking care of her dying mother was a bit too much for me right then.

Yet, I was intrigued by the parts I’d read.  And I was glad to have it with me on this trip some months later.  Now I’m glad to recommend it as the kind of book that makes you think about your own life.  What’s right with your relationships with your mother and your daughter?  What’s wrong and why?  What doesn’t really matter?  Sometimes reading other people’s experiences puts your own into perspective.

Janet Mason is a talented and honest writer.  Her relationship with her own mother was not perfect, which of course is what makes the book interesting.  More interesting is the fact she is willing to explore the imperfections without dwelling on them and becoming one of those victim writers whose memoirs I can never quite stand to read.

Life is hard.  Being a mother is hard.  Nobody’s really ready for it when she gets the job, no matter how much you might have read or planned.  It’s just not like anything else, and you can’t really prepare.

But somehow the species keeps managing to perpetuate.  Somehow some of us seem willing to take that plunge and become parents.  We do our best, whatever that is.

Ms. Mason was an only child.  Her grandmother and mother were factory workers.  She was the first generation to go to college, and that in itself puts a certain amount of pressure on.  The politics are not the same through the generations, and neither is the sexual orientation.  Ms. Mason is a lesbian, and while that might have put a strain on some mother-daughter relationships it wasn’t a big issue for her mom, who was open-minded in this respect.  The family supports and loves Ms. Mason’s partner, their “unexpected daughter-in-law.”

Ms. Mason’s mother was, herself, a bit of a rabble-rouser and one to question authority or the status quo in general:

When I was old enough, she sometimes took me with her, the two of us marching and attending rallies, waving our matching mother/daughter coat hangers at pro-choice events.  I was the less adventurous one — hanging back and watching with something bordering on amazement as my mother heckled the hecklers and squeezed the balloon testicles of a Ronald Reagan cardboard cutout.

Ms. Mason’s grandmother was a lifelong Republican and Episcopalian, yet she, in her own way, questioned the status quo by getting a divorce in the 1920s and raising her children herself in a time when many other single mothers were forced to give theirs up.

Ms. Mason’s mother developed cancer, which was misdiagnosed at first.  By the time she found out what it was, the disease had spread too far and the diagnosis was terminal.  From then on Ms. Mason spends much of her time with her mother and father.

At first it’s hard for Ms. Mason to understand and accept that her mother is dying:

The next day we had an appointment to see the oncologist whose office complex was next to a shopping mall.  As I sat in the backseat of my parents’ car, I felt lost in long loops, off-and-on-ramps that seemed to go nowhere.  I was subsumed in a hard glittering sense of doom — deep in a nightmare that would not let me wake.

A theme of the book is a mother’s hopes for her daughter — hopes that she will do better, or accomplish more, or accomplish something the mother was not able to do.  Ms. Mason’s mother had very strong feelings about this, and sometimes Ms. Mason feels she has not lived up to her mother’s dreams for her.  Meanwhile Ms. Mason’s mother was a woman of artistic talent and interest, but who needed to work at a basic job to support her family.  Ms. Mason finds a portfolio stashed away with no artwork in it, which leads to feelings of guilt — did she get in the way of what could have been her mother’s success as an artist?

She finds something else to hold on to in these final months — and for long after her mother is gone.  It’s a “School Years” book with report cards and pictures from each grade:

She always asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I wrote it down each year.  It didn’t matter how ridiculous or remote the possibility was.  In first grade I wanted to be a fireman, later a violinist, a gypsy, a scientist, a comedienne, an oceanographer, a guitar player in a jazz band.

My mother let my dreams be dreams.  She did not expect consistency or demand a discipline that would eclipse my childhood.  No one ever asked my mother what she wanted to be when she grew up.  But she asked me every year and wrote down my answers.  As I watched my mother slipping away from me — as painful as it was, day after day — the thought of this book, filled with my earliest dreams and aspirations, was something for me to hold onto.

A simple thing that meant so much.  Tea Leaves is a simple book with a lot to offer.  It’s about figuring out your future, your past and your present.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com.

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Book review: A practitioner looks at puppet theater

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bell bookAmerican Puppet Modernism: Essays on the Material World in Performance, by John Bell.  Published by Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2013; 280 pages, softbound, $28.00.

Reviewed by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle 1-29-2013

When most people think of puppets the image of Jim Henson’s Muppets probably springs to mind, followed, if they live in northern Vermont, by the creations of Bread and Puppet Theater’s Peter Schumann.

Puppeteer and scholar John Bell wouldn’t disagree with those thoughts, but in American Puppet Modernism, first published in 2008 but just reissued in a softbound edition, he argues for a much broader view of the field.  For Mr. Bell, puppets are a particular example of “object performance,” and his fascinating collection of essays examines the implications of the theater of things.

Object performance, Mr. Bell explains, encompasses all manner of familiar and unfamiliar theater, from masked performances to the balloons in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and beyond.

The book starts with a description of a traveling show in the late nineteenth century that, by means of illuminated paintings and a spoken narrative, told the story of a conflict between native Americans and European settlers in Minnesota.  As one might expect, the story reflects the view of the settlers, depicting Indians as savages.

That view is slightly modified when early ethnographers visit the Zuni Indians in the southwest several years later.  There two observers record religious rites involving giant Shaklo figures, tall rod puppets who mediate between the human and spirit worlds.

Mr. Bell shows how the views of the two observers are to varied degrees clouded by the assumption that the Zuni people are barbarians, midway on the journey from being savages to being completely civilized.

Literary critic Edmund Wilson, seeing the same ceremonies a few decades after the ethnographers, though, is able to see the force of the puppets’ performance and its position as the glue that holds Zuni society together.

Mr. Bell argues that American society is bound together in a similar, if less pure, fashion by performing objects.  The puppets that performed on a stage modeled after a giant medicine cabinet at the 1939 World’s Fair were there to tout the advantages of modern pharmaceuticals, and similar performances sought to persuade consumers that the world of the future would be one dominated by automobiles.

That future has come to be, and Mr. Bell takes a close look at how people use automobiles as performing objects.  His chapter about hot rod culture casts a new light on the idea of performance cars, by showing how customizing an automobile to increase its speed and to give it a distinctive appearance makes the vehicle a player in the driver’s self-presentation.

In addition to exploring the byways of object theater, Mr. Bell gives a straightforward history of how puppets became a prominent feature of modern theater.  From its introduction as part of the Little Theater movement in the Midwest, and eventually around the country, he traces outbreaks of puppetry in opera, theater and, eventually television.

In Europe, puppetry was seen as a less than respectable form of theater, Mr. Bell says.  Puppeteers were able to satirize rulers and other important figures, often escaping punishment by insisting that it was the puppet, not the person, doing the mocking.  That idea of object theater being a somewhat lower-status form was one that was carried over in puppetry’s journey to the United States.

The very word puppeteer was invented around 1917 by theater pioneer Ellen van Volkenberg.  The term was modeled on the word muleteer, a very appropriate choice considering that puppets can be notoriously recalcitrant.

Although the Little Theater movement died out, a number of the puppeteers who got started in its productions went on to become major forces in theater and the commercial world.

The inflatable balloons in the early Macy’s parades were created by puppeteers who were always willing to investigate new materials for their creations.  (One of the wonderful facts Mr. Bell drops into his story is that in the first years of the Macy parades, the puppets were released as part of the festivities, to the consternation of airplane pilots.)

Mr. Bell includes in his survey of object theater the cinematic puppetry that brought King Kong to life.  Film, he argues, is analogous to shadow puppetry as practiced by Indonesian and Chinese artists.  The technology of computer graphics and motion capture technology that is essential to the effects that animate films today is a further extension of puppetry, Mr. Bell argues.

He gives a list of the biggest moneymakers in film history, all of which include computer generated creatures.  His book was written before the film Avatar broke box office records, but it would have taken his point further in that the human hero could himself be seen as a puppeteer, bringing an alien character to life in order to fit into a nonhuman civilization.

As a former member of the Bread and Puppet Theater, Mr. Bell speaks of Peter Schumann’s work with insight and sympathy.  Oddly enough, he chooses as an example a show in which I performed in 1995.  Mr. Bell’s clear description was particularly interesting to me because, working behind large pieces of cardboard throughout the evening, I never could see even an approximation of what the audience witnessed.

Mr. Bell contrasts Mr. Schumann and Jim Henson, who once shared studio space in New York City.  Mr. Schumann has sought freedom for his artistic and political vision by pursuing the least expensive means to create a spectacle.

Mr. Henson, whose vision of the world Mr. Bell suggests was sunnier than that of Mr. Schumann, was willing to accommodate himself to a commercial system in order to get his message across.

In his book Mr. Bell makes clear how this dichotomy has inhabited object theater over the past century or so, and how the practitioners of the art of puppetry have tried to overcome the physical and societal limitations to pursue their vision.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

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Second book in mystery series does not disappoint

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Art for the cover of this book was done by Stephanie Coolidge Perkins.

The Mystery of the Brick Kingdom, by Raymond C. Perkins Jr. of Derby Line, self-published, 140 pages, $4.99 for an e-book or $7.95 for a hard copy.  Half of the proceeds will be donated to the American Association for Cancer Research.

Reviewed by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle 11-14-2012

The Mystery of the Brick Kingdom is the second in a series of mysteries starring two young boys with a knack for investigating.

This one is set so close to home I can look out the window of the Chronicle office and see the setting.  The Brick Kingdom is a small historical park where people can take a short path through the woods to see the ruins of Barton’s booming industrial past, which was mostly run by water wheels spun by the water coming from Crystal Lake.

At the top of the hill sits E. M. Brown and Son, where people can buy lumber, paint, grain for their animals, clothing and hardware.  The huge old seven-story landmark building plays a big role in the newest mystery written by Mr. Perkins.

Some of the names have been changed here, slightly, to protect the innocent, we must assume.  But the changes are so slight that anyone who lives in the area will understand that the town of Burton is definitely based on the town of Barton.

Other names are completely intact, including Vermont Beef Jerky which is a company started by other Perkins family members.

The second book in the series will not disappoint fans of the first one, called The Mystery of the Silver Statue.

The Mystery of the Brick Kingdom is lively, with a good plot, and fun to read.  It’s full of suspense and action, chutes and ropes and intrigue.  The characters are solid young people, not at all one-dimensional.  They are drawn from Mr. Perkins’ experience as a father and a teacher.

B.T. is short for Benjamin Thomas Stevens.  Jimmy is his best friend, Jimmy Martin.

After their success finding a long-lost silver statue in the last case, the two have become local heroes and opened an office for their budding security business, checking on summer properties when homeowners are gone.  As the second book opens, the pair, just graduated from middle school, are equipped with a microscope, finger printing kit, pre-paid cell phones and information gleaned from an online investigator’s course.

The two are opposites physically.  Jimmy is tall and athletic.  B.T. is small and has health problems, some of them stemming from a cancerous brain tumor removed surgically when he was only five years old.

Armed with cans of wasp spray and tae kwon do skills achieved at Dunlavey’s Black Belt Academy, the two decide to meet someone who has written them an anonymous note — the person wants to meet them in the Brick Kingdom at midnight.

Without giving away too much here, it turns out that the mystery involves a will left by one of the founding fathers of the town, and family members’ struggles over the estate.

Important documents have been stashed away, and it’s up to the two young detectives to help find them.

As the story unfolds, our heroes get involved with two young ladies about their age who have an interest in finding the truth.  Some chemistry seems to be starting, a sign that the young detectives are growing up a little with each book:

“At that moment, it dawned on B.T. that Patti had asked for his help and his help alone, with no mention of Jimmy or their security business; just him, B.T. Stevens.  A massive knot formed in his throat and his heart skipped a beat as he gazed adoringly at Patti’s plain-featured natural beauty.”

A moment later he tells himself he must keep his focus.

“‘A good detective doesn’t get involved personally in his cases.  Rule #5,’ he silently mumbled to himself sadly.  ‘Try to remember that, Lover Boy.’”

Rule number 5 is quoted from the online detective course he took.

The mystery turns out to be much more than child’s play as unfriendly adult relatives who are also seeking the documents related to the family fortune enter the picture.  Let’s just say the wasp spray comes in handy.

Situations in the book challenge B.T. physically, intellectually, and emotionally, and he rises to each challenge.  This series will prove inspiring to young adults who haven’t always had it easy in life.  The main hero is not James Bond; he’s a boy with some disabilities who has been raised to always try his best.

The Mystery of the Brick Kingdom hints that the boys might be headed next to the Haskell Opera House, which would no doubt provide another good setting for a mystery adventure for the intrepid pair of B.T. and Jimmy.

This book is available at E.M. Brown’s in Barton, the Woodknot Bookshop in Newport, at the Evansville Trading Post or online at http://mystery4me.wix.com/btandjimmy#!home/

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

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