Acclaimed Vermont author Howard Frank Mosher has died. Mosher, 74, succumbed to cancer Sunday morning at his home in Irasburg.
His stories celebrated the Northeast Kingdom as the last bastion of a people and a way of life that has all but disappeared from Vermont.
Mosher and his wife, Phillis, were fresh out of college when they came to the Northeast Kingdom in 1964.
They were looking for teaching jobs and planned to stay only for a year or two. Fifty-plus years, eleven novels and two memoirs later, Mosher was still there.
“What we found in the Northeast Kingdom was just a gold mine of stories that no writer had ever told before, and I pretty much dedicated my life to telling them,” Mosher told VPR in 2010.
It began with a story their landlady told them about making moonshine whiskey with her husband on their farm during the depression.
When a well-dressed federal agent turned up to shut them down, she told him they’d lose the farm. The man went away — but years later, after she was widowed, the landlady answered a knock on her door. The well-dressed man was back, but not to arrest her.
“He said to her, ‘No ma’am, this time I’ve come to marry you.'” And he did, Mosher recalled.
Hearing that story was a transformative moment.
“Phillis and I looked at each other and we knew that ... one way or another, I was going to write the stories of the Kingdom,” Mosher said.
Phillis went on teaching and Mosher set to writing. He reimagined the Northeast Kingdom by creating his own world, called Kingdom County, and telling the stories of its people in books such as Disappearances, Where the Rivers Flow North, Stranger in the Kingdom and Northern Borders.
Kingdom County, like its real-world counterpart, is, as one of Mosher’s narrators tells us, “a little known fragment of a much earlier America” and a way of life that by the mid-20th century was nearly at an end.
“It was the area that had not yet been encroached upon, had not yet been developed, had not yet been gentrified,” says Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven who worked with Mosher to adapt his stories for five films.
Craven says Mosher’s “historical imagination” was rooted in a keen sense of the people of the Kingdom.
“He described one of the characters in Stranger in the Kingdom as having ‘flytrap ears,’ and that’s sort of what Howard had. He picked up cadences of language, he sought out people where they were,” Craven says.
Part of what made Mosher’s stories so enjoyable was their tall-tale quality. But despite the rollicking, can-you-believe-it events he created, there was a reality to characters such as Sojourner Kitteridge, Alabama Jones, the Kinneson family and Marie Blythe. They were heroic and flawed, stubborn, independent and self-destructive.
Author Jeffrey Lent, whose books explore a similar terrain and time, remembers reading Mosher more than 30 years ago when he was living away from his native Vermont.
“Actually, I think when I first discovered him, it irritated me, because I felt that was the territory I was headed for,” said Lent.
The two writers met years later when Mosher showed up at one of Lent’s readings. It was the first of many times they would get together.
“In a line of work that’s quite rather filled with overstuffed egos, Howard is one of the most generous and gracious and gentle souls that I’ve ever met,” says Lent.
Northeast Kingdom native Scott Wheeler, who publishes Vermont’s Northland Journal in Derby, says Mosher sought out the unvarnished stories.
“He didn’t go out to look for people who were going to extol the Northeast Kingdom as this quaint Never Never Land. He interviewed the people who truly make this area rich,” Wheeler says.
Mosher was one of the first to encourage Wheeler when he decided to write Rumrunners and Revenuers, a book about prohibition in Vermont.
“He believed in me before I believed in myself. He [lent] his support to aspiring writers and I’m not the only one. There’s many stories of how Howard helped people,” Wheeler says.
That was another side of Mosher. Those who knew him say he was a tireless booster of new writers and a champion of independent bookstores and budding publishers.
When Dede Cummings started Green Writers Press in Brattleboro four years ago, Mosher spent a day driving her to Vermont bookstores.
“He would take me into each bookstore and introduce me to the booksellers, and they all knew he was coming because he had arranged this whole thing for me,” Cummings says.
Cummings worked with Mosher on the newly-established Howard Frank Mosher Book Prize for emerging novelists. The first of the awards was made in January to writer Jackson Ellis of Burlington.
Mosher loved the North, Jay Craven says. And he lived a Kingdom life; hunting, fishing and exploring the woods.
In the past month, as his health quickly deteriorated, Mosher posted a message on Facebook, thanking his “bookseller friends, writer friends, reader friends and friends in general."
He has a new book called Points North, which will be released sometime in the future.
“I am happy to leave you all with the gift of what may be my best book,” Mosher wrote. “Enjoy it with my compliments.”