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.