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  It’s the Africa of Idi Amin, whose brutal rule of Uganda has been replaced by tribal warlords who run outfits like the Lord’s Resistance Army, which kidnaps children during village raids and turns them into soldiers by a gruesome ritual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.

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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Edward Hoagland: 23 books and still going

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Edward Hoagland stopped in at the Chronicle office to do an interview.  Photo by Paul Lefebvre

Edward Hoagland stopped in at the Chronicle office to do an interview. Photo by Paul Lefebvre

by Paul Lefebvre 

When writer Edward “Ted” Hoagland turned 80 in December, he had 22 books under his belt.  Today, he has one more and is working on another.  Of course there’s an essay in the works, from the man writer John Updike called “the best essayist of my generation.”  And then there’s a journal he’s been keeping that will be published posthumously.

Some people who come to the Northeast Kingdom think there is nothing to do.  Not Hoagland.  He bought a house on Wheeler Mountain in the early ’60s, and has been living there ever since as a summer resident.

To the extent it is in the boonies, the Northeast Kingdom has undoubtedly contributed to his impressive literary output.

“I’m doing very well on what is my sixth novel because, well there is no phone, no electricity, which is fine at this time of year,” says Hoagland, who sat for a taped interview at the Chronicle’s office last week.  “I don’t use all the daylight there is; I fall asleep before it’s dark.”

Hoagland came to Vermont to buy a house and land when he was about 35.  He had been introduced to the state by a college friend whose father, the eminent historian Henry Steele Commanger, had a house in Newfane.  Hoagland says the house was “crammed with books” and rural enough to take walks on dirt roads and see tracks from wildlife, “which, of course, I loved.”

A love of wildlife and wilderness landed Hoagland in southern California as a young, hotshot firefighter in the early ’50s.  Poking through the country on his off hours, he became so intrigued by mountain lions that he traveled to far-away places, such as the mountains of Alberta, Canada, to see one.  This obsession may account for his willingness to risk life and limb when he became a caretaker for MGM’s signature lions, who appeared to produce a loud roar at the beginning of every picture the movie company made.

The company had a retirement home in California for all the lions it had employed since the ’40s.  It was also keeping “a very sweet female mountain lion,” which happened to be in heat when Hoagland was there.  He says he would often sit next to her cage when no one else was around.  Until one day when he was struck with “the impulse to crawl into her cage.

“She was very surprised, and she went to the back of her cage, turned around and sprang at me,” he says.

But as she went to strike him in the face with a paw, she withdrew her claws.

“It was a love tap,” Hoagland says.

Hoagland doesn’t say whether the experience taught him to conquer his fears.  But to this day he strikes a fearless posture in the face of adversity.

“If I saw a black bear in the woods, I would say, ‘You are not a grizzly.’  I love animals.  I am not going to make you unhappy, but you are not going to scare me.”

Or when he encountered a potential mugger on the street he would say, “You are not a tiger,” and continue on his way.

When Hoagland came to Vermont looking for a place, he was living in New York City, a connection that appears to have helped him find what became his heart’s house.  From Avis Harper he got passed on to Em Hebard, who had lived in New York, Greenwich Village, Hoagland’s old neighborhood.  And together they found the place on Wheeler Mountain.

“I loved the house to start with,” he says.  “I knew it as soon as I saw it.  And it wasn’t just the house, it was also the cliffs.”

He figures he’s spent a third of his life there.

“When people ask me about it, I say I’m going to my heart’s home.”

Hoagland says he came to Vermont rather than Maine, New Hampshire, or the Adirondacks because of the people.  Prior to Hoagland’s purchase, the man who had lived in the house made corn whiskey and brewed bathtub beer.

“For a long time after I bought the house, old customers would periodically drive up and would be disappointed there was no white lightning,” he say.

From living in Barton, he got to know Phil Brooks, a taxidermist, and Paul Brochu, who owned an exceptionally clever hound dog.

“Paul could call the dog and point to the fox, and the dog would stop chasing the coon and follow the fox. And if they happen to come onto a bobcat track, which is much more valuable, the dog would just pick up the bobcat track.”

The state shared physical characteristics that he had seen elsewhere in his travels.  But there was something else.  The people.  And not just those who shared his interest in mountain lions or wildlife.

“Vermont combined the landscape of the West, I mean it looked like Idaho,” he says.  “But the people of the East I have always loved.  I’ve been to Alaska and British Columbia, too, nine times.  But I don’t like the people who live there as much as Vermont.”

Vermonters, he says, have “more of a sense of conservation.”

At the time he bought the house, he had written three books and was working on his fourth.  Although he’s a prolific writer, Hoagland writes with the concentration of a monk. He says it takes him three or four months to write an essay, and four to five years to write a book.  He routinely goes from fiction to non-fiction with the facility of a Northeast Kingdom native who can switch from English to speaking French.

If he becomes stymied while writing a novel, he picks up where he left off writing an essay.  And often, working on the essay, he figures out the next conversation or scene to use in the novel.

Since Hoagland only spends summers in Vermont, he had never written a book from beginning to end while residing in Barton.  But, perhaps not surprisingly, he was in residence at Wheeler Mountain when he wrote the essay, “Hailing the Elusory Mountain Lion,” which was published in 1971 by The New Yorker.

Other essays of Vermont origin include “Of Cows and Cambodia,” and the “War in the Woods,” after an outing with houndsman Paul Doyle.  During the ’70s, Hoagland also wrote “The Moose on the Wall,” which took its title from a head mount inside the Howard Bank and featured his taxidermist pal, Mr. Brooks.

But among Kingdom readers with long memories, Hoagland may best be known for the essay he wrote about the girlie shows at the fair, which caused the uproar that led to their early and premature demise.

“Unfortunately,” says Hoagland.  “It was not my intention.”

The shows continued for three or four years elsewhere before they were banned.  Hoagland says his essay took the church-going people of Barton by storm.  “Of course they stay away from that so didn’t know what happened inside until I wrote about it,” he says.  “But they found out why boys went to the fair as boys and came back men, which they had never known before.”

After his spate of Vermont essays, Hoagland traveled to Africa.  He went twice during the ’70s; once in 1976 and again in 1977.  He went during a time when there was a lull in the fighting.  On his return, he wrote African Calliope: A Trip to the Sudan, first published in 1979.

War had returned to central Africa and the Sudan — “that I love so much” — when Hoagland made a second round of visits, once in 1993 and again in 1995.  The war caused widespread famine and Hoagland says he had to be there.  Strafed by MiGs and living in a church compound close to the war zone, his experience this time around resulted in what some critics believe is his best book, Children are Diamonds.

“It took me 20 years to produce this novel because the experiences are based on my own experiences,” he says.  “I did do a couple of pieces for The Nation, but I couldn’t exorcize them through those pieces.”

Hoagland was working as a freelance journalist when he accompanied a transport of food into a relief workers’ compound where thousands and thousands of starving refugees had gathered.  It was the first shipment of food since the killing of four UN aid workers four months ago.  The scene beggars description.

“They had eaten all the insects, all the grasshoppers, all the song birds,” Hoagland says.  “All the area smelled of smoke for in order to smoke out the insects and the rodents, they had burned everything off.”

There were 58 trucks in the transport, carrying corn.  He recalls watching children running alongside the lorries, gathering spilled kernels that they would bring to their mothers after acquiring a handful.

It was that moment, he says, that he had the most powerful experience of his life.  Hoagland was in his sixties at the time and his hair had turned prematurely white.  The women and children equated white with power, and in Hoagland they saw someone they believed to be their deliverer.

“So, they asked me if I was the head of the United Nations,” says Hoagland, who after all these years still chokes up with the memory.

“Are we forgiven?” they asked him.

Hoagland told them he had just arrived from America, and he says they looked at his boots and asked if he had walked.

The most powerful emotion he experienced came moments later when he heard the mothers tell their children: “That white man can save your life.”

And, just like that, he remembers it happened.  “These wobbling, staggering children with huge bellies came up and touched me.”

Throughout his career, Hoagland focused on being the best American essayist he could be.  But it’s an attitude he’s extended to the very craft of writing, and one that leaves no regrets.  Every book he has written, he says, “was the very best I could do at the time.”

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

For a review of Mr. Hoagland’s newest book, Children are Diamonds, 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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Book review: A showcase for Vermont food and farmers

vermont farm table cookbookReviewed by Tena Starr

The Vermont Farm Table Cookbook, 150 Home-Grown Recipes from the Green Mountain State, by Tracey Medeiros.  Photographs by Oliver Parini.  254 pages.  Paperback.  Published by the Countryman Press, Woodstock, Vermont.  $19.95.

This is a cookbook that was just waiting to be written.  Given Vermont’s attention to local food, diversified agriculture, and family farms, the only wonder is that someone didn’t write it earlier.

The Vermont Farm Table combines recipes with short profiles of the farms, breweries, farmers markets, and restaurants the recipes, and many of their ingredients, come from.  It’s also a picture book.  Lots of cookbooks include photographs of food that make your mouth water.  This one does, too, but in addition, it’s a Vermont Life-style photo show of forests, fields, gardens, and farmers.

Predictably, there’s a lot of “brand” ingredients involved here.  For instance, it’s likely possible to make a fine New York strip steak without WhistlePig whiskey, but if it doesn’t turn out to be quite the dish you’d envisioned, you can probably blame the cheap brand of whiskey you used instead of WhistlePig.

It’s about time to say here that I have theories about cookbooks, the main one being that the best cookbooks — the most worn ones on my shelves — tell you how to put together ingredients you’re likely to already have in tasty ways you haven’t thought of before.

To a large extent, this book does that.  The maple-glazed sweet potatoes with walnuts and cumin that we made Thursday night were terrific, easy to prepare and didn’t even require a trip to the store.  The recipe comes from Square Deal Farm in Walden, owned by Sarah Lyons and Ray Lewis, sugarmakers who also raise Pinzgauer cattle and pasture fed pigs.

There are lots of recipes in this book that are as simple and inexpensive:  for instance, asparagus and brown rice from Pomykala Farm; Full Moon Farm’s hearty toasted sandwiches with heirloom tomatoes; Kimball Brook Farm’s hefty corn chowder; Butterworks Farm’s maple cornbread; Longview Farm’s leg of lamb; or the amber ale-braised highland beef chuck roast from Shat Acres in Greensboro Bend.

But be prepared to shop as well as cook if you plan to use this book, which may be part of its purpose.

It also helps to be a gardener.  Some of the simplest recipes rely on ingredients you’ll find at a farmers market, or in your own garden, but probably not at Price Chopper.

For instance, there’s no way that Full Moon Farm’s hearty toasted sandwiches are going to be as tasty without Brandywine tomatoes, which you’re highly unlikely to find in a grocery store, given their relatively short shelf life, odd color, and lumpy shape.  Grocery stores, and the growers who supply them, long ago traded in flavor for longevity and appearance.

But I think it would be fair to assume that a major purpose of this particular cookbook is to introduce local ingredients, as well as their sources, the idea being to reconnect people to good food and where it comes from.

Author Tracey Medeiros is marketing Vermont and its farmers here, but also providing Vermonters themselves with information about where to find fresh, local meat, produce, cheese, fruit, and maple products — and what to do with them.

Not surprisingly, the weakest section of the book is that which deals with seafood, Vermont not being known for its fresh scallops and shrimp.  But the main reason I say that is because the recipes tend to come from restaurants rather than from farmers, and are thus more complicated.

Yes, I would love to make butter poached halibut with forbidden black rice, beet dashi, and fennel salad, but I have no idea where I’d get two fennel bulbs, stalks removed, bulbs trimmed, and a cup of dried shitake mushrooms, as well as two star anise pods.

That recipe comes from a Burlington restaurant, rather than a farmer — a restaurant that’s committed to fresh, local food, but the recipe does not suggest where the ingredients might be found.  Most cooks, outside of chefs, aren’t likely to traverse the state in order to locate what they need for dinner.

Some of the ingredients called for in this book include vanilla bean paste, root of celeriac, hulled hemp seed (isn’t that illegal?), arrowroot, fennel bulbs, and pomegranate molasses.

Like I said, you might have to shop in order to use this cookbook.

As a book about Vermont farmers, it succeeds admirably.  The brief profiles are of people who grow, raise, or prepare Vermont food in all its fresh diversity.  We all know that superior maple products, great apples, a variety of cheeses, and grass fed beef and free range poultry are grown here.  But cranberries?  Rabbit?  Flowers?

As a cookbook, for the most part, it approaches cooking with solid but creative ideas about how to use the wealth of local products that Vermont has to offer.  The Vermont Farm Table is better than many I own and seldom open unless I have a rare day to spend hours in the kitchen.

I can’t wait until the squash crop comes in and we get to prepare grilled coconut delicata squash, or roasted root crops, or winter squash with roasted garlic.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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A look at Vermont’s environmental movement

GrenningVTCoverGreening Vermont, The Search for a Sustainable State, by Elizabeth Courtney and Eric Zencey.  Paperback. 173 pages.  Published by Thistle Hill Publications, North Pomfret, Vermont, and the Vermont Natural Resources Council, Montpelier, Vermont.  $35.00

Reviewed by Tena Starr

A book whose main characters are, arguably, Act 250 and I91 might not strike a potential reader as having much promise in the way of being riveting, but Greening Vermont is actually a highly readable book with much insight into what makes Vermont be Vermont.  It’s the story of environmentalism in the Green Mountain State — its successes, its failures, its current goals, its conflicts, and its evolution in the face of shifting challenges.

It’s also, almost accidentally, a modern history of the state, evidence of just how thoroughly Vermont’s character has become entwined with, and often defined by, how its farms, forests and waterways are used and how its towns and cities look and function.

In order to understand environmentalism in Vermont, it’s necessary to go back 150 years to a boy named George Perkins Marsh, who grew up on a farm outside Woodstock and, through his father, began to grasp the relationship between man and nature.  Among other things, he learned about natural watersheds and soil erosion, about their effects as well as their causes.

So says Tom Slayton, former editor of Vermont Life magazine, and author of the forward to Greening Vermont.  Mr. Slayton says that Mr. Marsh went on to be the first to argue that human actions could seriously damage natural systems, and in 1864 he wrote Man and Nature, a tome that warned about the havoc humans could wreak on nature.

Jump ahead to 1958.  It was a chilly Saturday morning in November and a few hundred citizens and officials gathered near Guilford on the Vermont-Massachusetts border.  In the book, grainy black and white photos show a collection of people in overcoats, men in fedoras, waiting to cut the white ribbon stretched across the new, and at the time remarkable, highway.  It’s a scene from another era, in so many ways.

“They were there to mark an important moment in the state’s environmental history — though it’s doubtful that any of the participants would have described what they were doing in those terms,” Ms. Courtney and Mr. Zencey write.  “They had gathered to listen to speeches, witness a bit of ceremony, and then climb in their cars to take an inaugural drive on Vermont’s first stretch of Interstate highway.”

It took just minutes to travel that first small stretch of Interstate.  However, Ms. Courtney and Mr. Zencey suggest the new road was the catalyst that led to rapid change in Vermont, and the need for environmental regulations to protect what isolated Vermonters had come to treasure, if also take for granted.

“The opening of those first few miles of modern roadway signaled the opening, also, of an era of rapid and far-reaching change for the state of Vermont, which had been until then a lightly populated, rural mountain fastness,” the authors say.  “Many of the hallmarks of modern life — television, telephones, even electricity — were not yet fully present in the state.  The engines of twentieth-century progress had largely passed the state by.  It was too remote, its population too sparse, its towns and villages too small to draw much attention.  With the arrival of the Interstate that was about to change very quickly, for the world that held Vermont in a remote and distant corner had suddenly become much smaller.  As one state official put it years later, the highway ‘took us out of the sticks and put us within a day’s drive of eight million people.”

In 1960 Vermont’s population was 389,881 with nearly 77 percent born in the state.  There were 9,400 farms and 258,000 cows.  About 2,624,370 acres were being farmed.  That was the first year that people outnumbered cows in Vermont.

Twenty years later, by 1980, the population was 511,456, with 64 percent born in Vermont.  The number of farms had dropped by nearly half, to 5,890 with 1,537,751 acres in farming.  There were 186,000 cows.

When that first stretch of Interstate was built, “growth and expansion — the easily foreseeable result of the Interstate — were widely embraced,” Ms. Courtney and Mr. Zencey write.  “If change meant jobs, a path out of rural poverty, and lives like those whose images had begun to flicker in (some) Vermont homes through the wonder of television, then change was good.  What wasn’t so easily foreseen was how thoroughly those changes would shape the state, testing its ability to preserve its landscape, its communities, and its character.”

Not everyone welcomed change then, as not everyone does today.  Former Associated Press reporter Chris Graff has told the story of an Ascutney farmer who refused to leave his land to make way for the Interstate.

“Eventually a sheriff arrived with a court order and a cohort of deputies, who set to work dispossessing the old man from the family farm,” Ms. Courtney and Mr. Zencey write, recounting the story.  “They moved tools and harnesses from the outbuildings, working until sunset, intending to return the next morning to finish.  They never got the chance.  That night Tenney’s house and buildings burned to the ground, with him inside.”

Romaine Tenney had said, “I was born here and I’ll die here.”  He was a man of his word.

And then came skiing.

With the introduction of rope tows and lifts in the 1930s, skiing was no longer limited to the hardiest of mountain climbers.  Once skiers had a ride uphill, the sport’s popularity was immense, and the owners of ski areas ceased to be content with what existed.  They used heavy equipment and dynamite to create new trails and reshape mountain slopes to make them more attractive to devotees of this newly mainstream sport.

Opponents of industrial wind on Vermont’s ridgelines will relate to this scenario.  Blasting mountaintops is not so much new as a revisitation of what happened 60 years ago on an even larger scale.   Then, as now, there was debate — roughly framed in the terms of conservationist versus preservationist.

It’s a conversation that would be familiar to anyone who has participated — either pro or con — in the controversy over commercial wind power.  At the time, as today, the mountaintop debate split environmentalists, with conservationists operating under the belief that using resources for the greatest good for the greatest number over the greatest period of time was the wisest use.  That view was at odds with “preservationism,” which held that nature should simply be left to its own devices for all to enjoy.

Ski areas created jobs but also pulled in a flood of newcomers, increasing property values, advanced commercialism, and burdened municipal services.  And at the time, there was no means to deal with the influx, with the billboards, the development, the seasonal homeowners — and the cultural, as well as environmental, changes that resulted.  Vermont went from a “handshake” culture to one that was forced to rely more on law and formally structured exchanges, the book asserts.

“The social cost of that change is difficult to calculate, but a direct measure of its scale can be made in dollars,” the authors write.  “In the late 1940s, skiers spent about five million annually in the state.  By the early 1960s, that figure had risen to well over thirty million, a sixfold increase in a decade and a half.”

Thomas Watson Jr., an avid skier himself, decided in 1957 to locate IBM in Chittenden County to be near his beloved ski areas.  IBM remains the state’s biggest employer.

Vermont’s organized environmental movement was likely established at Goddard College in Plainfield in 1963 where a two-day conference called Natural Resources in Transition was held and the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC) was formed, an all volunteer organization at the time with the goal of shaping public policy through education and “to promote wise use and preservation of natural resources to the benefit of Vermont citizens….”

It was not VNRC, however, that waged war against Vermont’s billboards.  It was a character named Ted Riehle.  This book is populated by many characters Vermonters will admire for their courage, their quirkiness, their bullheadedness, or their idealism.

Mr. Riehle is one of them.  “A lifelong Republican, a fan of both Barry Goldwater and the Grateful Dead, he was a well-connected politico who much preferred the solitude he got as the owner-operator-designer of an off-the-grid sheep farm on an island in Lake Champlain,” the book says.  His son called him “Jimmy Stewart meets John Wayne.”

In 1968, Mr. Riehle somehow convinced his fellow Republicans to support a total ban on roadside commercial advertising.  He also managed to persuade business owners that the ban would be in their long-term best interests — that individual self-interest would bring about loss for all.

That ban is one of Vermont’s hallmarks, as is Act 250, the environmental law that set out to regulate how the state would be developed — not haphazardly, not simply for short-term profit, but with a vision in mind of what Vermont would like to be and look like.

Act 250 has been a heavy lifter toward that end, but nearly 40 years later, even it remains subject to criticism and steady calls for alteration.

It’s 2013 now, and many battles have been fought, Vermont has, for the most part, resisted rampant sprawl.  But challenges continue, in many forms.

“Vermont is not now a sustainable state, but in the effort to achieve that goal, it has a head start,” the authors of this book write.  “How this came to be is the story we have aimed to tell in this book.”

It’s a story they’ve told well, a bit idealistically perhaps, but it’s one that acknowledges many factions in the great and ongoing debate about what Vermont is and will be.

“And what exactly is a sustainable state?” the authors write.  “As with any longed-for object, distance and anticipation shape our expectation, making the destination seem a completely marvelous place.  We’ll recognize the sustainable state as a place where economic and environmental interests are identical, because we’ve shaped the economy to the limits that the planet gives to us and learned our hard lessons about what is and isn’t possible.”

The old challenges are not conquered, and new ones have arisen — climate change, for instance, and commercial wind.  There is no final solution, only a continuing and ever shifting challenge.

This book tells the story of how we got to where we are today, where we’d like to be tomorrow, and offers a bit of advice on how to get there.  Along the way, it recounts conversations with some of the people who have been instrumental in many of those endeavors, tells a remarkable history, and provides some vision for the future.

Elizabeth Courtney served on Vermont’s Environmental Board for a decade, and she was executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council for 14 years.  She was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University and is now an environmental consultant.

Eric Zencey is a Fellow at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont and has held fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller-Bellagio Foundations.  He writes regularly for the Daly News, a publication of the Center for the Advancement of the steady State Economy.  He is the author of three previous books.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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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.

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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Radiant Hen publishes Higher Ground to benefit flood victims

by Tena Starr

copyright the Chronicle 9-12-12

Higher Ground, by Kevin Fitton, is a simple little story for children.  Basically, it’s about Tropical Storm Irene and one Vermont farmer’s efforts to keep his family and beloved dairy cows safe in the face of rapidly rising water.

This farm family doesn’t experience the devastation that many Vermont farmers did because of Irene, but it does know loss.  However, their grief and recovery efforts are tendered by the neighborliness, the kindness and generosity that characterized the aftermath of Irene in Vermont.

Although the story itself is pretty basic, this is a gorgeously illustrated little book.  Of course. The illustrations are by Plainfield artist Mary Azarian, who made a name for herself decades ago with her stunning woodcuts.  In 1999, she won the Caldecott Medal for her book Snowflake Bentley, a picture book about the life of Wilson Bentley.  She’s illustrated more than 50 books, and that doesn’t begin to describe her art.

The bigger mission behind the publication of this slim paperback is that 100 percent of the proceeds from its limited edition sale of 1,000 books will go to the Vermont Farm Disaster Relief Fund, which was established with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture to help farmers hurt by Irene.

Mr. Fitton of Ferrisburgh is a pastor in South Burlington.  He developed a love for books at an early age and is the author of several short stories.  This is his first published book.

“It’s a lovely story that shows not only how community comes together in times of need, but also how important the farm animals are,” said Tanya Sousa of Radiant Hen Publishing.  “They’re family to the characters in the book — not just moneymakers.”

Mr. Fitton had submitted the manuscript, and “we really liked it,” Ms. Sousa said.  “Since it was about Tropical Storm Irene it crossed my mind that, by some chance, people might want to do it as a fund-raiser.”

Mr. Fitton immediately agreed to the fund-raiser.

Ms. Azarian also donated her time, as did the graphic arts and editing team of Theresa Perron-Janowski and Jeannine B. Young, both of West Glover.  Carl and Susan Taylor of Derby paid for the printing so that all the money from book sales can go to the Vermont Farm Disaster Relief Fund.  “Everyone agreed to do it for nothing,” Ms. Sousa said.

Ms. Sousa of Coventry started the Radiant Hen Publishing company about five years ago.

“My thinking was that, as an author myself, it’s very frustrating to me to be treated sometimes poorly, to sometimes not get paid even when there was a contract,” Ms. Sousa said.  “I saw the need for companies that gave Vermont authors and illustrators a chance to break in in a way that they are treated like somebody, and they get decent royalties.”

People don’t make a lot of money with a book published by Radiant Hen because they don’t sell an awful lot of books, but they do get generous royalties on those they sell, Ms. Sousa said.

She doesn’t recommend either writing or publishing as a path to riches, but personally she doesn’t care.  “We’re doing it for the love of it,” she said.  “For the money to generate money for the next book.”

Radiant Hen’s goal is to publish three books a year, but that number recently slipped to one a year for economic reasons, although Ms. Sousa said business is picking up some again.

Authors submit their work to Radiant Hen and Ms. Sousa, as well as a team of volunteer readers, screen the manuscripts.  To start with, they must meet Radiant Hen’s basic guidelines:  The author must be a Vermonter and the book must be about either an environmental or agricultural subject.

At the moment, picture books likely stand the best chance of publication.  “We’ve decided not to do chapter books,” Ms. Sousa said.  “We did well with them, but they don’t bear the publication costs.”

Nor does Radiant Hen help people self-publish their books, she emphasized.  Prospective authors can’t simply offer to pay the little company to print their book.  “If it gets chosen, it gets chosen because it fits,” Ms. Sousa said.  “We’re not a vanity publisher.”

Authors and illustrators get royalties; Radiant Hen keeps the rest of the money to cover printing and marketing costs, standard practice in the publishing business.  That income usually does no more than pay the bills for printing and marketing.

“I’m not concerned about making money with it,” Ms. Sousa said.  “I’m just concerned with giving people an option.”

She said Radiant Hen receives hundreds of manuscripts, many of them very good and worthy of publication.  She can sometimes recommend another publisher.  “Often we have to say no, but we try to give them a foot up, try to give them any help we can.”

The publishing company’s unlikely name starts with a sad story that ended with what Ms. Sousa views as a bit of a miracle.

She and her husband had a small flock of chickens, but for unavoidable reasons the chicken coop had not been fully tightened up.  One day she walked out to the coop and found the entire flock slaughtered by a raccoon.  There wasn’t a chicken left alive.  In fact, there wasn’t a chicken left whole.

Ms. Sousa said that after she got done crying she went back out to the coop to clean up the mess and was amazed to find one white leghorn hen standing there unharmed.   She had no idea where the hen had been or how it had survived.

“She was my beautiful white radiant hen, and when it came time for the publishing company I wanted a name that boded well for survival.”

Radiant Hen’s mission is to publish books, for both children and adults, that encourage good citizenship, kindness, and environmental awareness and debate, and to raise awareness of Vermont places and people and sustainable agriculture.  Ms. Sousa also hopes to incubate promising authors and artists.

At the moment, Higher Ground is available through Radiant Hen.  It can’t be sold through bookstores unless the store is willing to take no cut from its sales.   The 30-page book is $10.95.  Radiant Hen’s website is:  www.radianthen.com.

contact Tena Starr at tena@bartonchronicle.com

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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Vermont’s history of women, Native Americans, and African Americans revisited

Reviewed by Tena Starr

copyright the Chronicle 8-29-2012

Vermont Women, Native Americans & African Americans, Out of the Shadows of History, by Cynthia D. Bittiinger.  Paperback.  158 pages.  Published by the History Press.  $19.99.

It generally wasn’t until the 1960s that Vermont history books were written to acknowledge the fact that Europeans were not the first to inhabit this ground, Cynthia Bittinger says in this slender book.  The man who finally assembled a convincing body of research on the early presence of the Abenaki, the man who finally managed to get historical mention of a people who’d been here for something like 11,000 years before Europeans were, was from Albany.

Historians generally credit Gordon M. Day with being the person who unearthed New England’s native past, Ms. Bittinger says.  Mr. Day was born in Orleans County in 1911 and, as a child, played with children who were part Abenaki.  He also knew the area as a place for natives to hunt and trap.

“In his adult years, he initially set out to study forest ecology, but after serving in World War II, he decided to devote himself entirely to saving Abenaki culture from oblivion,” Ms. Bittinger writes.

Mr. Day used French records (apparently more accurate — and more friendly — than British records) and Indian tradition in his research, discovering that, until the end of the eighteenth century, the village of Missisquoi, near present day Swanton, was a political hub for Western Abenaki.

Since he knew the Abenaki language, he was able to avail himself of natives’ oral tradition to reconstruct a narrative for a people who had either died wholesale, largely from European diseases they had no immunity to, or willfully vanished, either literally or figuratively, in order to avoid persecution, destitution, or sterilization.

What, Ms. Bittinger wonders, allowed for misinformation so grave that an entire people was excluded from the history books?  Ethnocentricism?  Lack of imagination?  Lack of sources?  The willingness of the Abenaki themselves to disappear?

Whatever the cause, Ms. Bittinger has done her part to remedy the omission and devotes the initial part of this book to the eastern Indian tribes.

The American Revolution seemed to spell the end of the Abenaki as a visible presence, she says.  Although many pulled back into Canada, some lingered in northern Vermont.

However, the Abenaki did little to reclaim their own history, possibly because of fear of retaliation for taking captives or attacking settlers, Ms. Bittinger speculates.

Later, in the twentieth century, Abenakis would be likely to hide their ancestry if possible because revealing it could lead to involuntary sterilization through the eugenics movement, which was not only aimed at Indians, but also at the poor and the less intelligent.

Ms. Bittinger has packed an awful lot of information into this little book.  Any one of the subjects she tackles here could have been a book in itself.  However, the section on the natives of Vermont is the most tantalizing and left this reader, at least, yearning for more.

Ms. Bittinger is a history professor as well as a commentator and lecturer, and this book reads more like a text than a narrative, with brief, sometimes very brief, descriptions on significant events, people, and historical information.  Each section ends with a “conclusion,” summing up the information that precedes it, much in the way one might write a scholarly paper.

What Ms. Bittinger set out to do, though, is admirable.  “Women and people of color have been denied a usable history,” she writes in her introduction.  “With a focus on landscape, military battles and government, natives, blacks and women are usually not included unless they participated in a battle or ran for office.”

But people have a need to know where they fit into the American story, she says.  “I am offering this history to change the narrative of Vermont’s past, present and future.”

She says she has tried to focus on the positive, on those who worked to improve the lives of others.

Vermont has often been ahead of the curve in its efforts to afford equal rights to its people, but it’s far from perfect.  For instance, passage of an Equal Rights Amendment for women failed as late as 1986.

In the nineteenth century, often women who died were not even remembered by their names on gravestones.  Widows were referred to as “relicts.”  Ms. Bittinger offers this example:  “Experience.  Relict of Samuel Wellington.  Died Dec. 17, 1838. Age 69.  Her first husband was Elias Bemis.”

The fact that maiden names were sometimes not included on headstones, can make tracing geneologies tough.

She moves rapidly from the grimness of that time for women, recording gains and the stories of some of the remarkable women who helped achieve them.

Ms. Bittinger’s credentials are long and illustrious.  She teaches Vermont history for Community College, she’s a lecturer, she’s a founding member of the Vermont Women’s History Project at the Vermont Historical Society, a commentator on Vermont history for Vermont Public Radio, and was the executive director of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation in Plymouth for 18 years, and her commentaries on Grace Coolidge won the Edward R. Morrow Award.

If you’re looking for a captivating read, this isn’t the book, but it does impart some very useful information about Vermont history and some remarkable people who risked their lives, or at least security and prosperity, to make this state be the leader it remains in civil rights.

Ms. Bittinger has done her homework, and produced an edifying volume of work that outlines not only many of the brave and ethical people who helped push this state forward in its fight for decency and fairness, but also honestly discusses where it’s gone wrong.

contact Tena Starr at tena@bartonchronicle.com

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Anna Baker was a brilliant artist with a comic touch

copyright the Chronicle, August 8, 2012

World of Fantasy, The Life and Art of Anna P. Baker, by Beryl Hutchinson and Roz Hermant.  Self-published.  185 pages in paperback.  $59.95.

Reviewed by Chris Braithwaite

I need to begin this review by confessing my bias.  Anna P. Baker, the subject of this richly illustrated work, was both a close friend and an important contributor in the Chronicle’s early years, when it remained to be seen whether it would sink or swim as a community newspaper.

That it swam, I believe, was due in large measure to one of the most unlikely duos to ever put ink to paper.  Loudon Young was a dairy farmer all his life, and his role in my life as friend, neighbor and mentor in the ways of rural Vermont predated the first Chronicle by four years.  When I asked him if he thought a weekly newspaper in Barton would have a chance of survival he said he didn’t think so.  Given his preference for color in language, he more likely said that such an enterprise would have a snowball’s chance in hell.

So it was a considerable surprise when he volunteered a column for the first issue, and a greater surprise to discover that this highly accomplished talker could also write, and that his writing was very funny, indeed.  His back-page column immediately became a weekly feature in the paper.

We didn’t make Anna Baker’s acquaintance until we were moving the office from a farmhouse in East Albany to an old barbershop on Barton’s Upper Main Street, and she wandered in to find out what the devil her new next-door neighbors were up to.

She found us amusing.  But then Anna found most things in life amusing.  That knack, along with the most exquisite good manners I have encountered in another human being, were pretty much what got Anna through an otherwise challenging life.

Anna told us she was an artist.  But I don’t think she mentioned that she was also a cartoonist.  She was a good enough cartoonist that, as a 16-year-old art student at a London, Ontario, technical school, she was interviewed for a possible career in animation with the Disney Studios.

I didn’t know that last detail until I read this book.  At any rate, it wasn’t long before Anna brought in a cartoon she thought we might like to publish.  Her chosen subject?  None other than the above-mentioned Loudon Young.  Loudon’s profile — a sharp chin often decorated with a bit of a beard, a sharp and substantial nose — was a cartoonist’s dream.  But it was Loudon’s humor that captured Anna, because his ear for what was funny about the most ordinary, everyday situations so exactly matched her eye.

Both of them thought there was something fundamentally funny about the common cow.  Loudon wrote about them constantly.  In her book, Beryl Hutchinson reproduces the first Baker painting she acquired.  Called Pent House Farm, it was executed at that same technical school, which Anna attended in 1944-45.  It’s a whimsical, wonderfully busy urban landscape with people farming on the rooftops of a couple of apartment buildings.  Ms. Hutchinson is careful to point out that it includes, atop one roof, Anna Baker’s first cow, a Holstein.

Anna’s renderings of Loudon and his cows appeared in many Chronicles over the years that followed.  They accompanied the best of Loudon’s columns in the Chronicle’s first book, Off Main Street, West Glover, Vermont, and the dairyman and his Holsteins were featured in a series of calendars she drew for the paper.

A generous selection of these cartoons is included in World of Fantasy.  But there are also many of her “serious” works — whimsical, intensely detailed, richly colored paintings that will delight the fans who have an Anna Baker hanging on the living room wall, and surprise those who know her work only through the Chronicle.

As we grew to know Anna, it became obvious that we were in the presence of an artist of great talent and considerable reputation.  Her works caught the eye of critics and connoisseurs wherever they were displayed.  That her reputation didn’t reach further was to some degree her own fault.  She volunteered once that a friend, a sophisticate in the business of art, had told her she couldn’t find success as an artist if she insisted on living in a backwater like Barton, Vermont.  She needed to be in New York City.  Anna acknowledged the advice as sound, and chose not to take it.  Whatever glue held her to the Northeast Kingdom, we are all the richer for it.

Beryl Hutchinson enjoyed a friendship with Anna Baker that went back to high school.  Her book includes a photo of a schoolgirl softball team named the Eagles with Anna in the front row, Beryl in the back.

Thus Ms. Hutchinson was the ideal person to stitch together this fully illustrated biography of the artist.  She opens with a surprising revelation about Anna’s origins — a surprise best left to her readers — and takes us through the artist’s school days, her formal education at the Art Institute of Chicago, which she entered in 1951, and the early teaching career that led to her friendship with Bunny Hastings, daughter of a prominent Barton physician.  That friendship brought Anna to Barton, and lasted the rest of Bunny’s life.

Anna beat cancer once, but lost the second round and died in 1985, at just 56.

To all of those who still miss her kindness, her wit, and her great talent, this book will serve as long-awaited consolation.

To buy World of Fantasy, go to “contacts” at  www.annabaker.net, or see www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/3334768.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

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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Freeman short stories tell small town tales

copyright the chronicle July 25, 2012

Round Mountain, by Castle Freeman Jr. Published by Concord Free Press, Concord, Massachusetts, 2012; 182 pages, softbound.

Reviewed by Joseph Gresser

Castle Freeman is an economical writer. His characters are stingy with their words and his descriptive passages are spare.

Economical readers, too, will be delighted with Round Mountain, a collection of 12 short stories set in Vermont, not just because it is beautifully written, but because it has an appealing price — free.

Actually, free doesn’t tell the entire story. Although the Concord Free Press does not charge for the book, the reader must promise to donate to a charity and to pass the book on to another reader with the same obligation.

Round Mountain is a book that a reader might well want to share. The stories center on Homer Patch, an unexcitable man of a distinctly practical bent.

The tales give glimpses of Homer’s life and the life of his community. They cover different periods of his life, from boyhood to early middle age.

In Round Mountain, though, the stories are not arranged chronologically. The reader has to reconstruct the sequence of events that, for instance, led to Homer’s complicated marriage to the much-younger Angela.

The couple has a son, Quentin, who, for unknown reasons, does not speak. The boy, who is not obviously disabled, wanders off in the title story. Townspeople join together in a search effort that, in a burst of magic realism, reveals to Homer his town’s real place in the world.

During the course of several stories, Homer serves his town as constable. Like the lawmen in Mr. Freeman’s other recent books Go With Me and All That I Have, Homer is not a by-the-book officer. He is the kind of person others call on when they need help solving a problem.

In “The Women At Holiday’s,” a call to expel a trespasser from a summer person’s shed is handled effectively, but in a way that satisfies neither the property owner nor Homer’s boss.

A more serious problem, in the person of a threatening stranger, appears in “The Montreal Express.” Homer’s instinct, as always, is for inaction and the apparent danger goes as mysteriously as it appeared.

For Northeast Kingdom readers, Mr. Freeman’s Vermont will have a real resonance. Although the stories are apparently set farther south, the community he creates is more typical these days of Orleans or Essex counties.

As in the Kingdom’s small towns, everyone gathers a history that is quietly registered in his neighbors’ memories.

Certainly, people talk about Homer, but also about Makepeace, a city lawyer who finds a place in the community — not without making some hard discoveries along the way.

Two people who find no welcome in Homer’s town are a retired police officer, whose burglary prevention efforts prove too effective, and one of the thieves who see them as a challenge. By the end of “Bandit Poker,” both men have found leaving the area to be the wisest course of action.

In addition to being a cat-and-mouse story, “Bandit Poker,” is a gritty meditation on how society deals with young men whose level of energy far outstrips their judgment.

Round Mountain is worthwhile both as a work of literature and an effort to inspire generosity. Those who wish to participate in both aspects of this project can do so by going to the Concord Free Press’ website at www.concordfreepress.com/roundmountain.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

For more book reviews, visit the Reviews page.

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