The Invited: A Novel

by Jennifer McMahon, Doubleday (2019)

Book Review by Laura C. Stevenson

Paranormal Mystery Set in Northern Vermont

The novel opens with a brief scene in 1924 Hartsboro, Vermont, told in the first person by Hattie Breckenridge, known locally as a witch. It describes her capture by villagers whose children have just died in the burning schoolhouse—an event which she foretold. She manages to hide her daughter Jane (who has, as her foreknowledge did not tell her, set the fire), but she cannot save herself. She refuses to say where she is rumored to have hidden her once-wealthy family's money, and the furious villagers lynch her and throw her corpse in Breckenridge Bog, part of her property. Fast-forward ninety-one years to 2015. Helen and Nate, middle school teachers in a Connecticut suburb, decide to leave their comfortable lives and seek the simplicity of Vermont, in a sustainable house they plan to build themselves. They fall in love with the Breckenridge property; Nate, a scientist, is excited by its woods, bog and wildlife, and Helen, an historian, is excited by the prospect of researching the story that comes with the land.

As they start to build (the book is divided into sections that follow the house's progress: Foundation, Framing, and so on), Helen begins to see Hattie's ghost, and Nate becomes obsessed with his sightings of an albino deer that eludes all his attempts to photograph. And things—wallets, tools—disappear for no ascertainable reason. One night, they capture the "ghost" whose presence they've sensed: it's Olive, a fourteen-year-old girl who lives with her father and the town's nasty tales about her mother, who has disappeared. Olive confesses that she has been robbing them to buy a metal detector to help her find Hattie Breckenridge's treasure, which her mother was sure existed. In return for their not calling the police, Olive offers to help them build, and it's not an idle offer, because her father is incessantly rebuilding their house for the wife that doesn't return. Helen and Olive thus embark on a tangentially related search, as Olive finds inconsistencies in the story of her mother's disappearance and Helen, assembling a beam, bricks and other old things for her new house, gradually finds out that three generations of Breckenridge women have all died violently. She becomes sure that Hattie keeps appearing to her in a desperate attempt to save the only survivor, and as the conclusion makes clear, she is right.

The idea of a couple's building a haunted house is a good one, and McMahon, a novelist of considerable reputation, handles the nuts and bolts of the Vermont scenery and Helen's historical discoveries very well. The mystery that is Hattie's legacy is revealed not through Helen's research, but by scenes that parallel Hattie's opening piece: several historical women suddenly appear to the reader, not as ghosts but as narrators who tell their tragic tales. While interesting in itself, this technique considerably weakens the book's suspense, and an alert reader will foresee the ending long before it comes. Olive is a good character: convincingly teeny, but also lonely and determined. He story gradually takes over the novel; in the final chapters, Helen, Nate and their house are barely mentioned. We intuit, however, that their project has been successful, that Hattie, her mission accomplished, leaves them alone, and that they have settled in.

© Laura C. Stevenson, first appeared in Deerfield Valley News, 5/16/2019



The Animal One Thousand Miles Long: Seven Lengths of Vermont and Other Adventures

by Leath Tonino, Trinity University Press (2018)

Book Review by Laura C. Stevenson

Debut collection of essays from a young writer celebrating Vermont

The animal in the title is a creature Aristotle invented in The Poetics (7B) to demonstrate that an observer of a gigantic object could see only its parts, and thus lost perception of its "unity and wholeness." Tonino implicitly compares Vermont to this animal; his twenty essays, collected from periodicals published between 2011 and 2017, portray his adventures and observations in all parts of the state. Together, they also portray his impossible yearning to experience the whole by feeling "the infinite invitation that is the terrain of home."

Young and vigorous, Tonino is an enthusiastic adventurer. "Seven Lengths of Vermont," for example, opens with his vow, upon returning from several years "bumming around the West," to rediscover his native Vermont by touring it in seven different ways in the course of a year. The reader (presumably ensconced on a sofa) then becomes his vicarious companion as he hikes the length of the Long Trail, hitch-hikes around the state in over thirty rides; completes a three-week, 300-mile ski trek along the Catamount Trail; bikes through the state in a tour of some 500 miles; paddles 260 miles in a canoe trek along the Connecticut River; swims, in ten days, the length of Lake Champlain; and finally, climbs into a friend's small plane for a two-hour “vast and fast” flyover of the whole state. At the end of the year, Tonino has experienced parts of Vermont from many angles and at many different speeds in an attempt to understand the whole.

There are more parts, of course, and more ways to investigate them. In "The Smiles are Huge" Tonino goes jack-jumping, a winter sport practiced only in Vermont. Other portraits of his cold and exhausting winter adventures (biathlons, New Year's Day kayaking, sled-packing) prove that Vermont offers winter opportunities far beyond commercial skiing. Mingled with Tonino's delightfully ironic portrayals of his adventures are interesting considerations of Vermont's present wilderness (its official Wilderness areas) and its unofficial wildness, thousands of acres of trees that are the result of ecological collapse and subsequent regeneration.

Between 1791 and the War of 1812, Tonino says, Vermont had the fastest growing population of any state in the union; a half-century later, its population had declined 40%. Why? Because the early settlers had clear-cut its virgin forest, raised sheep that overgrazed the resulting pastures, and abandoned it as the topsoil washed away. Tonino's essay "Seeing is an Art" portrays one of the first naturalists to recognize man's catastrophic effect on his landscape: Darwin's contemporary George Perkins Marsh, a distinguished resident of Woodstock. As a cautionary tale about this destruction, Tonino offers the nineteenth century town of Glastenbury (near Somerset), in which 21 brick kilns produced charcoal, each of them burning 50 cords of wood a day, and a sawmill turned out 1000 board feet an hour … until, with no more trees to hold mountain topsoil, the town disappeared after the "freshet" of 1898. Hiking to the town's location, Tonino found all signs of civilization covered by regrown forest—a "wilderness in recovery, the flow of wildness across time."

Tonino's adventures encourage Vermont natives and visitors to look at the wildness about them, instead of assuming that wilderness can be found only in the West. Provided that they heed George Perkins Marsh's observation that "sight is a faculty; seeing, an art," they will develop a deep appreciation for the varied and beautiful wild parts of the animal a thousand miles long.

© Laura C. Stevenson, first appeared in Deerfield Valley News, 2/7/2019



Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance

by Bill McKibben

Book Review by Jon Meyer

How do you make a serious subject like global warming and the survival of our planet fun to read about? It takes a good wit and an ability to get the audience on your side.

Bill McKibben's first novel points to a near future time when Vermont has already warmed considerably. "The globe had warmed faster and harder than anyone had predicted. With Arctic ice melted, there was no place to build up the intense cold that had always marked winter in Vermont. Lake Champlain didn't freeze anymore, and if snow fell, it was usually for a few nighttime hours in the middle of a rainstorm."

The author ably sets the secessionist theme by using parallel references to a time early in our nation's history, and well-known in Vermont. "Ethan Allen went to Albany for the great court battle, but it was a put-up job. The judges were puppets. They held that all the people farming in Vermont had to buy their land again, this time from the New Yorkers. The next day the attorney general of New York visited Allen, and told him to go tell his friends to make the veiled threat. 'Might often prevails over right,' he pointed out, with the confidence you'd expect from a representative of the mightiest empire on earth. Ethan Allen looked at him and said, 'The gods of the valleys are not the gods of the hills, and you shall understand it!' And he headed home."

"When he got there, he assembled the Green Mountain Boys -- remember, these men were faced with losing their land. And they passed a resolution. I'm quoting from memory here, resolving to protect their land from the New Yorkers 'by force, as law and justice were denied them.'"
McKibben is well-known for leading the global resistance to consumption of fossil fuels that are major contributors to global warming. He makes it plausible that the Vermont resistance version of this worldwide movement could ignite serious Vermont secession momentum. This is the action he calls for in his quote, “We are not in a position of despair, but in a position of engagement.”

Many Vermont details are utilized to give Radio Free Vermont specificity, plausibility, and a dry sense of humor. "Also, she likes the man who screams at you about stocks, and honks the horn at night. He reminds us of the men who stood outside the naked lady tent at the Tunbridge Fair when we were girls. We didn't want to see the naked ladies -- we could just look at ourselves -- but we liked listening to him talk."

Radio Free's hero, Vern Barclay, has been a Vermont broadcaster, and broadcasts news of the resistance, along with realistic commentary about the bleak future when a good Vermont snowstorm is a rarity. "The big news from the National Weather Service is predicting that tomorrow will bring the first serious snowstorm in three years to the Green Mountain State." McKibben has famously said in his public lectures, "Take no snowstorm for granted." This future rare one becomes a foil for the secessionist resistance's moves that give this tale an adventure and suspenseful ending.

McKibben weaves his fable into a very readable prediction of what could happen -- a Vermont secessionist success that some would like to see happen, in contrast to the dire and ultimately believable not so far future of Vermont when its consistent winter snow culture will become a nostalgic white memory.



To the Left of the Sun: Poems

by Linda Flaherty Haltmaier

Book Review by Scott Lesniewski, Contributing Editor, Brilliant Light Publishing

Award-winning writer and Poet Laureate of Andover, MA, Linda Flaherty Haltmaier’s third book of poetry, To the Left of the Sun: Poems (Homebound Publications) has a cover photograph of a bird making its final approach toward an evergreen branch. Each one of the piney needles is pointing upward to the sky, as the outstretched wings of the bird are unfurled, negotiating another safe landing.

The first poem, Dead Birds, begins with an invitation:

“Bring me your dead birds, drop them on the stoop and together we’ll sit and marvel at their beauty between sips of iced tea.”

I love this poem, its respect for the feline nature, its appreciation of the:

“tenacity it took to pluck this aerialist from the sky,” as violent as that sounds. It seems a shame not to admire the bird while still animated, but:

“Dreams are skittish and spook easily into the bush.”

Birds like dreams are pounced upon when the moment is right, springing into action and taking shape in the ordinary experiences of every-day living. There are more than a few birds throughout this collection of 53 poems, each displays its feathers to admire, but just as ordinary humans have their “chop wood,” “carry water,” ”business of the day” days, so too the:

“Sparrows do their version outside the kitchen window, they flit and squeak, beaks full, then not—”

Life moves along throughout the five chapters of poetry, soaring over emotional landscapes as children leave the nest, memories are pondered, seasons change, family secrets are kept, bodies age, deteriorate, die, and are buried. Challenged by the passage of time, the poet rises with the sun and thrives. There is beauty to be recorded despite the inevitable, as in Deflated:

“The pendulum swoosh sends a first morning chill through the bedroom window,”

or from Morning Walk:

“…the collision of seasons peeling back, making room, stages of birth, death, grief, and a thousand nuances in between.”

And as one might expect, a crow and a blue jay are both observed.

Also found within the pages, the accepted sacrifices of women are pointed out. Dangerous Women and On Demand stand in solidarity with women suppressed by a society determined by men in positions of power. Then, piercing the madness of it all, we’re captured in mid-flight by a timely poem as brief as a tombstone epitaph:

Election Results

The trees don’t know who won or lost— they stand, rooted and flaming, dropping leaves that gold plate the earth like the walls of a Buddhist temple.

Mention of the Buddha is enough to ground us as the final poem offers a visit to a garden, where a stone statue of a saint with a bird perched atop his head is surrounded by passing slugs and swaying lilacs. Here forgiveness is considered, but not granted. A hardened perfection is left to the birds as the author holds onto past injustices, “like a little girl and her threadbare rabbit.” The best that can come of it is to enjoy the garden together.

To the Left of the Sun is strewn through and through with imagery of birds and nature. In the company of polished stones in the pocket of a suicide, the dirt of a freshly carved grave, a lady bug crawling across window glass, the planting of zucchini seeds – reading each poem is a brisk hike through real life; no lazy walk in the park. Keep eyes wide open while weeding the garden. One may encounter thistles, some amusing, some annoying, some quite painful. The roses on this box of chocolates will draw blood.