“Points North: Stories” by Howard Frank Mosher

Genre:          Fiction (Adult)  35343337
Pub. Date:   Jan. 23, 2018
Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press

Upon his passing in January 2017, many readers mourned Howard Frank Mosher.  Thank goodness his books are immortal and can be read and reread as often as we wish, allowing us to travel into the very real, strikingly beautiful, and remote part of  Northern Vermont known affectionately as The Northeast Kingdom (NEK), which is the setting of all Mosher’s works.  We can also see his books on the big screen. Four of his books were made into movies: “Northern Borders,” “Disappearances,” “A Stranger in the Kingdom,” and “Where the Rivers Flow North.” In his last book, “Points North,” which was published posthumously, he secures his place among the best regional American writers in current times.  In his obituary, The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Mosher’s fictional Kingdom County, Vt., became his New England version of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.” (Kingdom County is fictional. It is written as a rural county on the Vermont/Canadian border.  The NEK is also located on the Vermont/Canadian border and is very much a real county).  I am lucky enough to spend a good part of the year in the Kingdom.

There are ten stories in “Points North,” all set in Kingdom Common, Kingdom County.   They’re mostly narrated by two brothers with the last name of Kinneson (the fictional family whom Mr. Mosher based on his own family).  One brother is the editor of the local newspaper and the other is the local judge.  They hunt, fish, and grow old together in the county where they were born.  They have been going on an annual fishing trip together since they were boys.  At the age of 80, the elder brother can still lift a canoe and place it over his head.   This feat is accomplished from a lifetime of hard work that is common in the NEK.  The brothers debuted in an earlier novel by Mosher, “God’s Kingdom.”   In “Points” the stories chronicle the intertwining histories of their family:  natives, outcasts, bootleggers, abolitionists, farmers, and others who settled and stayed in this brutally rural area.  The stories are not linear.  They bounce back and forth in time, which I enjoy. In each tale, the reader learns more details about the characters.

The opening and title story, “Points North,” is a touching tale of a man whose family were former slaves.   He disowns his daughter, who “yoked up” with a man he considers trash, but ends up raising her son, his grandson, who was dropped off at his doorstep when the boy is fourteen.   They are already arguing before he even knows the boy’s name.  The teen is obstinate, just like him.  He drives the kid nuts with his moralistic yet repetitive stories of his granddaddy’s granddaddy.   But every now and then he makes a dent in his grandson’s armor.  While showing him how to mark the depths of a river dam, he explains that his granddaddy was just a shaver (Kingdom speak for a boy) when the Klan came riding and killing through the town, leaving a hundred people to burn in a church.   The grandfather tells his grandson that he has always “suspicioned” that the reason the dam was created in the first place was to put the church murders out of sight and mind.

In “Sisters,” we get a good feel for the hardscrabble life in the Kingdom, as well as a good dose of NEK humor.  One sister talks nonstop to the other, who just happens to be dead.  The sisters couldn’t be more unalike.   One is sweet and virginal, though her ornery sister would call her a prude.  When a couple of spooked drivers, with out-of-state plates rudely ask the not-so-sweet sister if they have stumbled onto a scene from the chainsaw movies, she ignores the question, but tells them to be mindful of where they walk, lest they put their foot on a rattlesnake.  Of course, there are no rattlesnakes within a hundred miles of Kingdom County.  The story is filled with the funny quirks of its characters.  However, Mosher wasn’t blind to the dark side of life in his beloved NEK.   At age eleven, one of the sisters drags their drunken dad home on a hand-drawn sled.  She passes another drunken man who is about to have his way with her.

The Kinneson brothers are still young men in “Lonely Hearts.”  The elder brother is married while the younger brother, at age 27, is not.  This does not sit well with his older sibling.  Unbeknownst to the younger, his brother sends in a personal ad to the “Mephremagog Daily Express” to find him a gal.  He signs the ad as Lonely Hearts pretending to be his kid brother.  The younger likes all of his dates that he meets through the ad, but they aren’t his beautiful high school sweetheart, Frannie, who he hasn’t seen since she left to go to college in Canada.  In the interim, the town is looking for a new doctor.   (The next sentence contains a spoiler alert).   When they finally meet again, his sweetheart is now known as Dr. Frannie, a psychiatrist who doubles as a family physician.  This is not as unusual as it sounds.  (I once went to see a doctor in the Kingdom who doubled as an AA facilitator).  She tells her high school sweetheart, in a joking manner that she is moving back to the Kingdom because it’s a treasure trove of mental disorders.  The love story in “Hearts” might be a bit too saccharine for my tastes, but heck, “all the world loves a lover.”

I might be a tad biased on Mosher’s works because I am drawn to the author for my love of the Kingdom and our home there.  I think of the author whenever we pass a house in Orleans (which was the town of his first home in the Kingdom, located minutes away from us) that looks suspiciously like the house pictured on the cover of his book, Stranger in the Kingdom.”  Or, the Orleans Fair which I go to every summer.  At the age of 13, my 75-year old husband snuck into the girlie tent between visits to the oddity tent with the two-headed chicken.  Not to mention, one of my favorite places in the U.S. is “The Old Stone House Museum,” a once student dormitory found in Orleans County, VT.  In 1836, the school was built by the first African-American to be American college-educated at Middlebury College, located in Middlebury, VT.  So, maybe I am biased, though I really doubt it.  I believe that he saved his best for last, as he suspected too:  shortly before his passing, Mosher told the Vermont newspaper, “The Rutland Herald,” “I am happy to leave you all with the gift of what may be my best book in ‘Points North.”

 I received this novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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