The Great Northern Express: A writer’s journey home

Saturday October 6, 2012

Editor’s note: The 11th annual Brattleboro Literary Festival gets under way on Friday, Oct. 12. Consult the Festival’s web site, for authors, reading times and venues. The review below is part of a series of reviews of books by authors who will be attending the 2012 Brattleboro Literary Festival.

Howard Frank Mosher is the author of 11 books: 10 fiction and one non-fiction. Much of his fiction takes place in the mid-20th century and all of it is set in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. He is the 1981 recipient of the Literature Award bestowed by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. "A Stranger in the Kingdom" won the New England Book Award for Fiction in 1991. He received the Vermont Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2006. His new book, "The Great Northern Express," is both a chronicle of his recent 100-city book tour across America and a reflection on his development as a writer in the Northeast Kingdom.

"The Great Northern Express: A Writer’s Journey Home"

By Howard Frank Mosher

It takes courage for a regional writer from a small corner of a small state to go on a national book tour to promote his regional books. But that’s what Howard Frank Mosher did -- even though he often got a "Harold ... who?" when he called to set up bookstore readings in the Midwest and Far West. Driving his beat-up 1989 Chevy (dubbed by him "Loser Cruiser") on a 20,000 mile cross-country trek to promote, "The Great Northern Express" -- at independent book stores only, and to many folks who don’t know where on earth Vermont is located, much less the whereabouts of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom -- Mosher has adventures, meets characters from the present and, sometimes hilariously, from the past, as he tells himself and his reader the story of how he found his writer’s voice many years ago.

Mosher turned 65 and had survived treatment for prostate cancer when he decided to take to the open road. The ironic title for the book comes from an old dilapidated boxcar that has moldered for years on a rural siding -- to "Great Northern" on the boxcar’s side, a graffiti artist had appended the word "Express."

There is no one word to describe this book. It is travelog, writer’s handbook, love letter and search for home, in an easy to take format of 65 short chapters powered by a true storyteller’s virtuoso performance. Mosher’s road journey is filled with reflections back to when he moved to the upper reaches of The Northeast Kingdom, spiced with real and imaginary encounters with characters from the past and those who show up as he rattles along U.S. highways.

We meet the author’s Uncle Reg, who, though long gone from this world, nonetheless occupies the passenger seat and regales Mosher with baseball lore, hometown history and mill town gossip. That place in the car is also occupied by other (perhaps) imaginary characters: Oliver Sacks, Mark Twain, The West Texas Jesus and The Battleaxe, his sixth grade teacher who once told him he’d "never amount to much."

During flashbacks the reader learns how Mosher met his wife, Phillis, and how they happened to arrive in Orleans County in the early 1960s -- and how they are shocked and fascinated by that rough and ready hardscrabble part of the world, peopled by those who live by their wits, are full of life, spirit, fearlessness and a cleverness that amazes. Thinking only to teach school for a year or two, and then go on to graduate school, instead, Mosher is enchanted and mesmerized by an assortment of folks who get under his skin and rearrange his destiny: The Prof, the Poet, the Deerslayer, a great snowy owl and Margery Moore, among others.

In an improbable setting Mosher finds irresistible stories, and after applying himself "to the seat of the chair," he finally finds his writer’s voice in which to tell those tales to a widening audience: "Disappearances," "Where the Rivers Flow North," "A Stranger in the Kingdom," are just a few of the titles in his growing body of work about "Kingdom County."

Howard Frank Mosher captures the spirit of a wild part of Vermont, where he and his wife stayed on to make their lives and to give themselves to the remarkable community of backwoods loggers, hillside farmers, whiskey drinkers, the free spirits who thrive there. He writes about cock-fighting, commission sales, runaway pianos and unruly high school students (and the writing they were able to do, inspired by his teaching). He gives some pretty good pointers on "how not be a teacher." He comes across wild animals who have run amok, as well as drifters and hitchhikers eager to share with him their philosophies and a drink or two. He writes of an attempted long-overdue apology to Garrison Keillor that goes comically awry.

"The Great Northern Express" proves that if some writers take the fast track to success, this writer has become a master yarn-spinner by the method of the long, slow curve. As the trip winds down and he nears its end at home in The Northeast Kingdom, a place immortalized as his own "Kingdom County," the author reconfirms his belief that "it’s a glorious thing just to live," especially in the home that chose him, among the people he has brought to life in his stories, and with the love of his life, Phillis.

Mary Mathias lives in Brattleboro and is a member of Write Action, a community-based writer’s organization


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