Points North Mosher's Final Love Letter to Vermont


Howard Frank Mosher
Macmillan, 208 pages

One year ago, Howard Frank Mosher of Irasburg, Vermont passed away. Seven weeks before he died, Mosher completed his final novel, Points North. Like most of the things he wrote, Points North is about the most remote part of Vermont, the Northeast Kingdom*—three counties, 2027 square miles and just 65,000 people. A state joke holds that the Northeast Kingdom is where Vermonters go to get away from it all. In Mosher's books, Essex, Orleans, and Caledonia counties are elided into Kingdom County, and the tale is spun that it was an independent republic after the Revolutionary War because it refused to accept the existence of slavery. (That was actually true of all of Vermont from 1777-91, though confusion over the borders between Vermont, New York, and Quebec also had to be settled until Vermont became the 14th state and the first to explicitly ban slavery.)

Mosher authored numerous books made into films by Jay Craven and is probably best known for Stranger in the Kingdom (1989), North Country (1997), and Where Rivers Flow North (1998). You could think of Mosher as the consummate regional writer and place him among company such Wendell Berry, Carolyn Chute, and William Faulkner, though he generally cited Twain and Cervantes as his role models and we can assuredly see in Mosher echoes of their wit, sense of the absurd, and penchant for flawed protagonists. Points North is a seven-generation collection of Kingdom County tales centering on the extended Kinneson family and loosely held together as recollections, discoveries, and retold legends between aging brothers Charlie and Jim Kinneson, the latter the editor of the (fictional) Kingdom Common Monitor.

In Points North, Kingdom County compensates for its paucity of residents with a surplus of colorful characters, among them runaway slaves, a fast-talking huckster evangelist, and a plus-sized heterosexual man who happens also to be a cross dresser and the best fiddler in the region! Mosher, like Chute, shows us both the picture postcard beauty of rural life, but also the struggles, heartbreaks and hardships of people living in a place with more scenery and winter than wealth or opportunity. Life in a region with a short growing season, declining farms, over 100 inches of annual snowfall, and subzero wintertime temperatures requires a delicate mix of steeliness and neighborliness and in Mosher the two traits are not always in balance. Most of his Kingdom locals are down-to-earth and plainspoken; the region is well watered, the humor is dry, and the tongues are often barbed—especially when clucking at outsiders. The Kinneson brothers sometimes speculate that were the area hermetically sealed, it might be better off; modernity and change come to the Kingdom like a knife in the back—a dam project that would flood a fishing camp held by generations of Kinnesons, cross-generational secrets aching to get out, grand old buildings that can't be kept up, historical societies seeking to keep the doors open, meddlesome government officials, and innovators who raise suspicion.  

I am loath to say more lest I spoil the delight of discovering Mosher's cranks, boosters, tragic figures, lovers, cantankerous men, strong women, heroes and heroines yourself. The tales unfold in non-linear fashion, which is, if you think about it, the way we actually learn history rather than how most of us read or write about it. Stories unfold like a cross between a dip into Jim Kinneson's newspaper back files and randomly recalled oral tales of people connected directly and indirectly by blood. A subtheme is the family stories one tells and those one shouldn't. Somewhere along the line Mosher tosses a curveball to the oft-repeated assertion that Vermont is the second whitest state in the Union. 

I have spent time in the Kingdom and can attest that it is, as Mosher presented, a place that feels like a land unto itself. In Points North, Nature is a silent character and that too feels right, especially when one gazes at the sides of the mountains not shredded by ski resort trails, icy lakes stretching into Canada, or down valley roads too far from the beaten path for leaf peepers. There's bitter irony in that Mosher presents much of the Kingdom's uniqueness as a fading way of life just as he was about to exit it.

Rob Weir   

* Former governor and U.S. Senator George Aiken (1892-1984) is credited with coining the phrase "Northeast Kingdom" in a 1949 speech.    

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