Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Life on a Vermont Hill Farm

Several weeks ago when we found out we were moving to Maine, I began looking for books set in the area. I just finished Northern Borders by Howard Frank Mosher, about a young boy who grows up with his grandparents on a hill farm in northern Vermont. It did give me some fascinating impressions of New England life, although it was set in the 40s and 50s in a more remote area than we’ll be living. Moreso, the story was captivating, emotional, and familiar. I had expected a charming book about a bucolic existence, but instead I embraced a tough, stubborn family’s morbid passion for the grueling hill country life.

The narrator is young Austen Kittredge who, after his mother’s death, is sent to live with his grandparents and attend the Kingdom County school (all graduates of the local school receive a free education at the state university). Austen is a sympathetic kid, a “famous reader,” who works hard on the farm, is devoted to his relatives, and doesn’t mind being the tool his grandparents use to provoke one another. The grim old couple spends their 40-year marriage in constant battle, which might seem like a stressful affair, but Mosher somehow manages to make it dynamic and amusing.

Other quirky highlights include a retired circus elephant, a plague of flies, a bank robber aunt, and two old uncles (one a preacher, the other a bootlegger). The back stories of all the Kittredge relatives are bewitching. Almost as much remains secret as is revealed in the end about each character, enriching them all the more. Austen’s stern grandfather has a particular obsession with maps and traveling north into the Canadian wilderness, which I found appealing.

I really can’t recommend this book enough, and I’m planning on looking into Mosher’s other novels. The characters remind me of my own cantankerous Scottish relatives as well as Ickie’s admirable farmer grandparents. Northern Borders shared the pleasantly scandalous nature of the Southern novel Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns, which I enjoyed as a teen.

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