Easing around a curve along Route 110, about eight miles north of Tunbridge, Vermont, one is likely to be transfixed—wounded, almost—by the prospect that sweeps into view: a plain and weathered yet elegant New England village undulates for half a mile along a thoroughfare, hardly wider than a couple of house lots on either side. Lining the road are manicured playing fields, a spare and handsome town hall, a century-old white frame church (Congregational-Methodist), a couple of school buildings, a harness shop, two greens, the county courthouse, stately houses of brick and wood, a modest restaurant, and a gas station. Steep mountains press in on either side of the village, and arcing through its western flank is a splendid little stream. More stately houses are visible halfway up the slope of the western mountain, tucked among pine trees. To the east a pine wilderness hovers above the town, giving way at the southern edge to a nearly vertical cemetery, its oldest tombstones commemorating Union dead. This is Chelsea, Vermont, the shire town of Orange County, chartered on August 4, 1781, population 1,250. It scarcely has the look of a town that would breed teenage killers.
Americans want to believe in towns like Chelsea. My wife and I moved to Vermont from New York City in 1988, in search of such a place. We came here for several reasons, but coloring all of them was the hope of raising our two young sons in the safety and harmony of a tight-knit town community. It wasn't an unreasonable expectation. In the 1980s and 1990s, as the nation's celebrated "rural rebound" established itself, Vermont had been ranked at or near the top of America's "safest" and "most livable" states. Vermont's largest city, Burlington, was singled out as a "Dream Town" (Outside magazine), received a City Livability Award (the U.S. Conference of Mayors), and was designated a "kid-friendly city" (Zero Population Growth). The state was recognized for its superior air quality by the Corporation for Enterprise Development. These surveys drew heavily on the perceived needs of children. Public safety headed almost every list of desirable characteristics. Other leading indicators were pupil-teacher ratios in the public schools, high school graduation rates, funding levels for the arts and for education in general, marriage and divorce rates, and birth rates among teenagers. And underlying all of this was the fact that happy children and Vermont are linked in American myth, in large part because Norman Rockwell, who lived in the town of Arlington, Vermont, for fifteen years, employed local boys and girls as models for his illustrations of leapfrogging, flag-saluting, Christmas-caroling American children.
According to a survey conducted in 1995, 41 percent of the U.S. population would eventually like to move to a small town or rural area. Not everybody can do it, of course; the potential loss of livelihood is usually too great a risk. But for those who try it, Vermont offers many sources of replenishment. A tiny state (9,609 square miles), it is sparsely populated, with fewer than 600,000 people. Its annual tourist flow dwarfs the local population. The heart of the state lies in remote mountain villages like Chelsea. Parents sometimes practice small-scale farming, or teach, or work as artisans, or join in the kind of "home economics" envisioned by the essayist Wendell Berry: a cooperative effort to maintain a purely local system of life. The children—well, the children, being the point of it all, are expected to mature smoothly into thoughtful, self-reliant adults, at peace with themselves and with the world.
Those are the expectations. If, indeed, the prospects for a happy childhood remain alive and well in havens like Vermont, they might imply a model of sorts for the many people in this country who have an anxious relationship with their children.
But what if they do not?
Last year, on a wintry Saturday, January 27, a popular academic couple at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire, just across the Connecticut River from Vermont, made preparations for a dinner party, one of many they had hosted in their house on the woodsy slopes of Etna, a town a few miles from Hanover. Both were German immigrants. They had made their house a salon for faculty members, students, and visitors to the college. Susanne Zantop, who was fifty-five, was the chair of the Department of German Studies. Her husband, Half, sixty-two, was a professor of earth sciences. At around six that evening the first dinner guest arrived. Venturing inside, she discovered Half and Susanne lying in their own blood in their study. They had been repeatedly stabbed in the head, neck, and chest.
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"Vermont town grasps for explanation" (The Associated Press, February 21, 2001)
"The community of the two teens charged with murders struggles to believe they were involved." By J. M. Hirsch (Posted by The Cape Cod Times.)
Over the three weeks following the attack, as the police combed the region but kept silent about the progress of the investigation, Dartmouth students and Hanover townspeople struggled against fear. Nearly everyone assumed that the killer remained in the vicinity—a troubled student, perhaps, or a faculty rival. A suspicious figure was spotted lurking around dormitories. A suspicious car with out-of-state license plates was reported. Members of the national media converged on the town, filled local hotel rooms, invaded Dartmouth dorms with cameras and notepads, seeking leads, quotations, rumors, irony. When the FBI joined the investigation, the range of conjecture went national and then international. Theories of a Holocaust tie-in circulated: the Zantops were political liberals who often argued that their native country should be more forthright in confronting the evils of its Nazi past. Had they been murdered by a vengeful neo-Nazi?