Win is a story in itself

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Vermont writer Jackson Ellis had never met Howard Frank Mosher when he asked the now late, legendary Northeast Kingdom author for a favor.

Ellis had finished a first draft of a first novel, "Lords of St. Thomas," in the fall of 2014 when the Plymouth native decided to share it with family, friends and publishing prospects.

"I thought that perhaps it might be best for an unknown person such as myself," he recalls, "to have a little praise or endorsement from someone whose name would carry weight."

And so Ellis tried to send his manuscript to a short list of authors he admired.

The response: "I was ignored for the most part."

Then Ellis emailed Mosher one Monday to ask if he'd look at the book.

Mosher said yes that Tuesday and received the draft that Wednesday.

Ellis woke that Thursday to a surprise.

"Howard emailed me a long letter, including a blurb, recommendations about where to pitch the book, and a humble suggestion on how the story might be improved."

Ellis was "floored."

"It was the closest thing to instant gratification I'd ever experienced in my life."

Ellis went to work on revisions. Mosher, for his part, learned he had cancer in his lungs and, as he told Facebook followers last year, "lots of other places."

Enter Dede Cummings, founder of the Brattleboro-based Green Writers Press. Thankful for the 74-year-old Irasburg writer's help in starting her outfit, she told him she was creating an award, the Howard Frank Mosher Book Prize, to honor new titles that celebrate "love, friendship, forgiveness, nature, Vermont, solitude, and other themes that are part of Howard's literary legacy."

At first glance, Ellis' manuscript seems the furthest thing. Set in the Mojave Desert town of St. Thomas, Nevada, it tells the story of a Depression-era auto mechanic and his family who discover President Calvin Coolidge's authorization of the Boulder Dam is about to flood their lives and livelihoods.

But mirroring the lead character in Mosher's "Where the Rivers Flow North," Ellis' protagonist doesn't budge. And like the latter 1978 book made into a 1993 movie, the results are dramatic.

"'Lords of St. Thomas' is both a terrific coming-of-age story and an exact and haunting evocation of a bygone time and place," Mosher wrote before his death last year. "What's more, it's a great read. I loved every page."

So did Green Writers Press, which has released the title as its first Howard Frank Mosher Book Prize winner.

Ellis, now living and working in Burlington, is set to share his work July 27 at noon at Woodstock's Bookstock Literary Festival.

"I am incredibly grateful for what Howard did for me," Ellis says. "In a professional sense, of course, he provided me with the boost I was looking for. But he also gave me much-needed encouragement, and in the writing game — as in so many other games in life — it is impossible to underestimate how important it is to hear someone you admire say, 'you can do it.'"

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.

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