October 2, 1997
During the summer of his fiftieth year the novelist Howard Frank Mosher set out to explore the whole length of the United States's northern border -- an area known to many who live there as the North Country. In the book that resulted from his trip, North Country: A Personal Journey Through the Borderland (1997), Mosher describes the region as "an immense, off-the-beaten-track sector of America inhabited by remarkably versatile, resilient, and, most of all, independent-minded people, most of whom are still intimately in touch with the land they live on." Mosher records and celebrates North Country lore and recounts the tales of the people -- including smugglers, farmers, and cowboys -- he meets along the way, all of whom share a "healthy frontier anti-authoritarianism" and face the disappearance of their traditional ways of life.
Mosher's love of the north and his desire to preserve it in writing have been the basis for his career as a fiction writer. For more than thirty years he and his family have lived in a remote corner of northern Vermont often referred to as the Northeast Kingdom, where Mosher has actively sought out from old timers stories of the area's rugged past. From these tales have come several novels, including Northern Borders (1994), A Stranger in the Kingdom (1989), and Disappearances (1977), and a collection of short stories, Where the Rivers Flow North (1978), all of them set in the fictional Kingdom County, an amalgam of the Northeast Kingdom, Quebec, northern Maine, and the Catskills (where Mosher grew up). Mosher has won several awards for his writing, including the 1991 New England Book Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Literature Award, and a film version of A Stranger in the Kingdom, starring Martin Sheen, will be released this winter.
He spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bacon.
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Excerpts from North Country, by Howard Frank Mosher:
"Log Drive on the Connecticut," by Robert E. Pike (July, 1963, Atlantic)
An intrepid story of the lumberjacks and rivermen who rode the logs in the big drives through the North Country.
Before you had sold your first novel, you quit your job as a social worker to devote yourself full-time to writing, acknowledging that your "North Country muse was a jealous and demanding one." What is it about the North Country that draws you?
The sheer, raw, undeveloped beauty of the place. I knew when I began taking fishing trips up into the North Country with my father and uncle when I was about ten years old -- just as soon as we hit the big coniferous forests of the Adirondacks and northern Maine and Canada -- that somehow I was where I belonged. I've often felt that it's rather like the way the geese are drawn north in the spring. There's something instinctive that pulls me to the north, the farther north the better. The place I felt most at home in my whole life was Northern Labrador, and that's about as far north as you can get.
One of the things that I most like about the North Country is that there really is lots of elbow room here for all kinds of people. It's still a very democratic place in the most basic sense. And not an awful lot has been written about the North Country, especially compared with places like the rural South. Back in 1964, when I first came to the Northeast Kingdom, I felt like a gold miner who had hit a mother lode. There were all these wonderful stories, a lot of them dating back to the Depression era and earlier, that hadn't been written before. I was determined from the start to write them.
Does your fiction come mostly from stories that you've heard, then?
Definitely. Although I put my stories through multiple drafts, often forty or fifty, most of them are inspired by actual events in this area and certainly most of the characters are known well around here. For example, one of the stories in Where the Rivers Flow North was "Burl," which was about a woman who saves her Depression-era farm by manufacturing moonshine and then marries the federal agent who caught her doing it and let her go. She was our first landlady when my wife and I came to Vermont. Though I changed the names and some details, that story is almost literally true. A Stranger in the Kingdom is based on a very ugly racist event that took place in my hometown of Irasburg.
You describe the North Country as "a vast and little-known territory so distinct from the rest of the United States that it has a special name of its own." What -- aside from geography -- sets the North Country apart?
One thing that sets it apart is the unforgiving climate -- by early September this year we'd already had a couple of severe frosts in northern Vermont. That means you can't grow alfalfa here, you can't grow wheat here. Farmers have to buy their grain. It's a tough place to make a living and always has been. We have frosts well into June, and we usually have frosts again in August; snow comes in late October and usually stays until the middle of May. It's difficult, practically speaking, for farmers who can't be on the land but it's also difficult psychologically to have seven-month winters. It doesn't matter how long you live here -- that can be a problem.
What sets the area apart most is its people. Sometimes North Country people are perceived, even by those in their own states, as quaint and eccentric, even wrong-headed. A man I met in Maine told me, "People in the state capital in Augusta think that their main obligation is to save us from ourselves." The North Country certainly has its own share of outlaws and survivalists, but most of the people I met on my trip were very hardworking, serious, intelligent people who were trying somehow to make a living from the land, even though that's getting more difficult every day. Many of them were still doing traditional kinds of work that their ancestors had done, like farming, lumbering, ranching, and mining. It was this contact, this interdependence between the people of the North Country and the land, that seemed to me to set them apart.
While many of the people you meet on your journey cannot imagine living anywhere else but the North Country, your book tells a tale of shrinking towns, fished-out waters, and no-longer-profitable farms. What do you see as the North Country's future?
I think the future, if we're not very careful to protect the land, is going to be bleak. I'm glad I took the trip when I did because I think in ten or twenty years a great deal isn't going to look the same as it does now. I saw all kinds of indications that the country is going to be developed, through vacation homes, through more resorts and fewer farms. One of the problems I saw in the North Country is that many professions are becoming obsolete, including railroading -- which was once a way of life in the North Country and elsewhere but scarcely exists at all now -- and mining, and, most of all, farming. When I first came to northern Vermont there were between 600 and 700 family farms just in the county where I lived. Today there are fewer than 200. Of course, what's happening is that people are leaving because work simply isn't available. At one time it was possible for a person to get by being a jack-of-all-trades. You could make a pretty decent living by doing some blueberrying, putting out a few lobster traps, collecting firewood, netting sardines. You can't do that anymore, here or anyplace else. I'm reminded of a Wallace Stegner quote about the Montana-Saskatchewan border territory, where he grew up: "I can't think of a better place for a boy to grow up or a less-satisfactory place for a man to live." I think that's true of the entire North Country. There's little for a man or woman to do unless they go and get an education and come back and find some way to apply it.
In a recent review of North Country, James Reaney wrote in the Ottawa Citizen, "What Mosher's journey is really about is our society's loss of Eden, the garden we were promised when we came here. The garden we've turned into pulp fiction and rocket ranges." Is this what your journey was about? Was there ever an Eden to be lost?
To a large extent, yes, that is what my trip was about -- and I think in some ways that's what all my fiction is about. There's a great deal of Eden-like wilderness left in northern Maine, Minnesota, Montana, and there's some here in northern Vermont, but it's being exploited to an astonishing and alarming degree. In Maine and Montana, I found clearcuts as large as small cities, and although it can be argued that it doesn't hurt the woods, it does hurt the wildlife and the fishing. I found slag piles as large as mountains from copper mines, coal mines, iron mines. I asked myself whether our country was ever really an Eden, and I think the answer is yes and no. It was beautiful and wide open but also harsh and dangerous. I was struck recently while reading Meriwether Lewis's journals by how a tiny miscalculation -- just getting caught out in a September blizzard or not properly respecting the force of a river you had to cross -- could result in the loss of your life. So it was an Eden, but a dangerous one.
The New Hampshire novelist Ernest Hebert has said that you "invented the 'Eastern.'" What do you think about this characterization? Is there an "Eastern" culture or way of life that you're trying to preserve?
I think what he was referring to was the high-action, picaresque stories that I write that are comparable to Westerns, but set in the East. It's certainly true that I've been attracted to violent scenes like the whiskey running in Disappearances, the log driving in Where the Rivers Flow North, and the frontier-town violence that you see in A Stranger in the Kingdom (which is brought forward even more in Jay Craven's film version). The character of these books has a lot in common with Bud Guthrie's The Big Sky and Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. Is there an eastern culture? Well, I think there's a North Country culture that includes Yankee traditions and French Canadian traditions. And although preserving that has never been my main objective -- my main objective, like every other fiction writer, is to tell a good story with interesting characters -- I do nonetheless want to preserve this French Canadian-Yankee culture in my writing. This is the culture of the hill farmers, many of whom I met when I moved to Vermont in the mid-1960s, who are gone now.
You set off on your trip "determined to make this intensely personal journey one of exuberance and affirmation rather than lament and nostalgia." Your fiction affirms the belief in human strength and self-sufficiency, yet there is a distinct streak of melancholy running through it. How do you reconcile the joy you sought on your journey with the darkness that often comes out in your fiction?
I don't. My fiction is one thing and the joy that I sought on my trip is something else again. In my fiction, in my "Easterns," the frontiersmen and frontierswomen whom I write about are constantly confronted with change. I think of Noel Lord in Where the Rivers Flow North who is faced with a power dam that's going to flood out his ancestral land, but also with the end of a way of life -- sending logs down the river -- that really isn't practical anymore. One central thematic question in my fiction is, What do you do when you're confronted with change and can't really live the lifestyle that your ancestors lived and that you want to live? Well, many of my characters resist. But most of the people I met on my trip and most of the people here in the Northeast Kingdom adjust. They have to adjust. The young people, for the most part, move. The Native Americans open casinos and use the proceeds to start other businesses. These aren't necessarily people I would write fiction about, though, because in fiction you need dramatic conflict.
Nature is almost its own character in your writing, through the hold it exerts on those you write about. What was it like for you to see your descriptions of the natural world in Where the Rivers Flow North and A Stranger in the Kingdom rendered cinematically?
I was wonderfully fortunate in that both the screenwriter, Don Bredes, and the director, Jay Craven, live in the Northeast Kingdom, so they're both attached to it and to the natural world. I very much wanted the movie to be filmed in Vermont by a Vermont filmmaker, particularly Jay Craven. I accepted very early on, as every writer who goes through this experience has to, that there would certainly be some differences in story and plot. There's tremendous difference between a 420-page novel and a 100-page screenplay for a ninety-minute movie. But I knew that Jay Craven would stay very close to my characters, as I'm delighted to report that he did. Both are gorgeous movies and are evocative of nature in the Northeast Kingdom. So for me the movies were a wonderful experience.
Many of the stories in Where the Rivers Flow North concentrate on people who have chosen to remove themselves from society. Similarly, you have removed yourself in some ways from the literary world -- by choosing to live where you do, by choosing not to do extensive publicity tours. Why did you make these choices and how have they affected your career as a writer?
I never intended originally to remove myself from the literary world. In fact I began as a high school teacher. Throughout my twenties I intended to become a college literature teacher and short-story writer. In 1969 I had rather a transforming experience: I went to California for a writing program at UC Irvine and felt desperately cut off from my material. I spent three days there and came home to Vermont, where I went to work in the woods with Jake Blodgett, a woodsman who turned out to be the inspiration for Noel Lord in Where the Rivers Flow North. I liked teaching. In fact, I liked it a little too much and spent too much time at it. I didn't see how in the world I could write about the Northeast Kingdom and continue to acquire fresh material while teaching. A classroom just didn't seem like the right place for me to do that. I know many writers do it successfully, but unless you take teaching as your subject, as Richard Russo did wonderfully in his recent novel Straight Man, I think there is the danger of being cut off from the kind of material that novelists write best about. Certainly in my case I couldn't have worked with Blodgett and taught at the same time.
There's another danger with teaching, a more subtle one: it's pretty easy for a teacher -- and it may even be necessary -- to start developing and expanding theories about "how it's done." How do you write fiction? Well, if you're teaching fiction-writing every day you're going to have some strong ideas about it. That's fine for a critic and fine for a teacher, but I believe -- and I think most writers in their heart of hearts know -- that there really isn't any workable theory about how it's done. Every day a writer has to sit down and learn all over again. Just because you've written five novels doesn't mean you can write a sixth. So I think the choice I made to leave the academic community, to be very careful about not becoming overcommitted to the literary world, was a very conscious one that kept me close to the place I write about. It wouldn't have been the right choice for every writer.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.