Idealism Meets Reality In A New Collection Of Vermont Fiction

Dec 16, 2014

A new collection of fiction offers a diverse perspective of the people and places that make Vermont what it is.

The anthology includes stories by well-known, award-winning authors such as Julia Alvarez, Wallace Stegner, Annie Proulx and Howard Frank Mosher, but it also mixes in stories from writers you may have never read, waiting to be discovered and enjoyed.

Contemporary Vermont Fiction: An Anthology was edited by Robin MacArthur, an author and musician.

"I grew up in Vermont, my dad grew up in Vermont, and I've been just privately collecting stories set in Vermont since I was 18 when I left home for college," MacArthur says. "And I have this bookshelf full of Vermont authors and pieces written in Vermont, and I've always thought, 'Wouldn't it be amazing to put all of these in one place? There must be other people who are also looking to find these voices.'"

Robin MacArthur, who edited "Contemporary Vermont Fiction," is a writer and musician and a third-generation Vermonter. She says she hopes the collection "broadens the scope of what we think of when we think of Vermont."
Credit Tyler Gibbons

MacArthur made it happen with her friend Dede Cummings, the founder of Green Writers Press. MacArthur says Vermont has many amazing novelists, but she wanted the book to focus on short fiction. "I wanted to make sure that we have voices of some of the people we automatically think of when we think of Vermonters. I wanted a farmer in there, and hippies; I also wanted to have as much diversity as I could find, so I have French-Canadian, Abenaki, and migrant farm workers and as much diversity in perspective, of age and gender as I could bring into the picture," she says.

The 16 stories are pretty gritty. A review in Seven Days mentioned the book has a high body count and lots of death.

The first story, "The Sweetness of the Twisted Apples" by Wallace Stegner, who spent more than 50 summers in the town of Greensboro, digs deep into the backwoods feel of Vermont.

"One of the things that I think is most inherently Vermont is the dynamic between the generations of people who lived here before the middle of the 20th century and then the influx of newcomers who came in, summer residents and hippies, and back-to-the-landers," MacArthur says. She wanted the story, which combines the two, to serve as an introduction for the rest of the book: An artist couple with romantic notions of apple picking encounters a woman who is living on an abandoned farmstead in the Northeast Kingdom.

"We have such a branded, kind of idealistic notion of all the good things that have come out of Vermont. I want to put those in dialogue with some of the darker class dynamics and realities that do exist here." - Robin MacArthur, editor of 'Contemporary Vermont Fiction: An Anthology'

One story by an author people may not be familiar with, Peter Gould, is one of the lighter contributions to the book. "Horse-Drawn Yogurt" is based on Gould's real-life experiences living on a commune as part of the back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s, and how those "new folks living the old ways," as he describes it, clung for as long as they could to a lifestyle that is largely forgotten now.

MacArthur says she didn't come across much humor in the selections that she read. She says she sought out Gould after realizing she needed humor and a "commune story" for the book.

Robin MacArthur says the collection features "as much diversity in perspective, of age and gender as I could bring into the picture."
Credit Green Writers Press

The book includes a story written by MacArthur called "Wings, 1989." It is a subtle and sad story about a marriage that appears headed for a bad end. MacArthur says it's based on her own experience, though the characters are not her parents.

MacArthur's father is a Vermonter and her mother was from Chicago, and they lived in a cabin "without real electricity and cars that never started." MacArthur says her mom became a homesteader, and took to it with grace.

"She loves it and she's now a professional farmer," MacArthur says. "But I witnessed a lot of homesteading women and men who did not love it and who discovered that it was a much harder lifestyle than they had fantasized."

"My hope is that it [the collection] broadens the scope of what we think of when we think of Vermont and who we think of when we think of Vermonters. We have such a branded, kind of idealistic notion of all the good things that have come out of Vermont," MacArthur says. "I want to put those in dialogue with some of the darker class dynamics and realities that do exist here, and because I'm a romantic, also make us more empathetic and compassionate tenants of this state."

Excerpt: "Wings, 1989" by Robin MacArthur

That day in July my mom came out of the house, wiped her soapy hands on her thighs, and told me to get my lazy bum up off the grass and go weed the peas. She wore rolled-up blue jeans, a cotton blouse, and a red bandanna that tied her dark hair back from her face. Her toenails were caked with dirt and needed cutting.

“Don’t want to,” I said. My dad had been gone on a job for a week and it was just the two of us. In the sun the temperature read ninety; bugs swarmed around my skin and flies landed intermittently on my thighs and knees.

“Katie, how’d you get to be so lazy?” she said, squinting off towards the hills that used to belong to my dad’s parents, but had since been sold, and then started walking alone through the tall grass down to the garden. I watched her thin shoulder blades moving under her blouse and went back to the library book I was reading. It was about a girl who lived in a clean house in the suburbs with lots of rooms and windows. The girl wrote stories, and the book was about those stories she wrote and all those windows. I wanted to be like her: unencumbered, surrounded by light. In one story she wrote about girls who turned into birds: hawks and ravens and buzzards and crows. They could fly anywhere they wanted to go. You knew, reading, that the girl who wrote the stories was free, too. You could feel it in your bones. But I couldn’t concentrate anymore, with my skinny mom walking down to the garden alone.

I felt a trickle of sweat slip down my spine and thought about those weeds—tall, green, stringy—crowding out the tomatoes and peas and carrots and beans. I thought about our basement full of empty canning jars collecting dust and our Datsun with a busted starter. After a few minutes I got up and went down the hill too, kneeled down in front of the carrots and pigweed. My mom didn’t say a thing, just looked at me sideways for a moment and smiled, then went back to the peas.

*

We lived in a house that didn’t have many windows: just a few small double-hungs in each room that we covered with plastic in winter. My dad had built the house when he was twenty: a pine-sided cabin with two bedrooms and a porch and a barn where he had hoped, someday, to keep horses. Now that barn was just a place with no walls where we kept snow tires and broken lawnmowers and old chairs in need of caning.

The weeds were thick and everywhere: pigweed and witch grass and dandelion. It had rained all of June and standing water pooled in-between the rows and mosquito eggs floated around in the pools. But that day was all sun. My hair fell into my face and stuck to my cheeks and the thin brown hairs on my legs shone. Wet dirt wedged under my nails and made them throb. The skin on my arms and legs burned. My mom’s arms were a nice freckled brown and she didn’t sweat. Mine were my dad’s: pink and burnable.

“Swing low, sweet chariot,” my mom sang, quietly and out of key. She had grown up in a big house in the suburbs, just like the girl in my book, and could have done anything with her life. Back in college she had wanted to be a poet. There were floppy books of poetry stored on a shelf in the corner of her bedroom, collecting dust. I got up and moved to the shade. I lay down and closed my eyes and thought about how a Coke or a blue Slush Puppy or a sip of my dad’s cold beer would feel on my tongue. I could hear my mom inching along through the rows. I picked a blade of grass and stuck it between my teeth and nibbled on it, let the bitter taste seep all over and then I spit it out and just lay there, feeling the cool.

*

I had the story of how they met like a movie in my mind. My dad had a job at the local college building storage sheds. It was hot and he worked with his shirt off and all the girls hung around, my mom told me, pretending to read near where he cut and hammered boards. But she was the only one to offer him a beer. He said he’d love one but swimming was an even better way to cool down. Then he winked. “You like to swim?”

He took her to a place in the Broad Brook called Indian Love Call and told her it was named that because Indians would bring their girlfriends there. On one side of the river a ledge outcrop rose twenty feet above the water and they carried their beers up to that rock and looked down. The water bristled with snowmelt and the boulders flashed silver in the sun. He beat his fists against his chest and made a hooting call meant to imitate an Indian and his voice echoed back. Then he took off all his clothes and leapt into the water. My mom stood there in her bohemian skirt and blouse looking down at him. He crowed and hollered and splashed and looked up at her. She laughed. “What you waiting for?” he called out.

“It looks cold,” she shouted above the sound of water hitting stone.

“Fresh!” he yelled, so my mom took off all her clothes and jumped in too. She’d never been naked in front of a man or leapt off a cliff into ice water; she said she knew right then, in midair, her life would be something entirely different than what she had imagined.

*

“You all done?” My mom stood up, brushed her dark hair out of her face with the back of her hand and looked down at me on the grass.

“Yeah. Pooped,” I said, so we walked back up to the house together. The sun had settled below the trees and the sky bloomed tangerine behind the leaves. She was too thin. Lacking muscle. “Eat, woman,” my dad would say, poking her ribs. “What, you want to float away?”

She put some rice on the stove and started chopping kale. Every once in a while she’d glance up at the old-fashioned clock that hung on our wall and made a loud ticking sound I knew so well sometimes I couldn’t hear it when I tried. On top of the clock sat little wooden turtles and rabbits and birds my dad had carved for both of us years ago.

She looked again at the clock. It said seven-thirty, which meant my dad should have been back a few hours ago, which meant he and Bill, the guy he built houses with, had either broken down or were drinking six packs at the river.

She licked her dry lips and looked at the door. It had warped over the years and now a half-inch gap of outside light shone between the door and the frame. Once she had asked him to fix it so he took some duct tape and pasted a strip over the gap. “There,” he said, grinning, laying the duct tape on the table. The strip of tape still hung there, half peeled down, the sticky part dull with cobwebs.

My mom turned the tap water on and the light over the kitchen sink flickered. She had asked him for real electricity too, not the long cord strung from tree to tree through the woods up from his parents’ house that made the lights flicker every time she used the blender or ran water.  My dad just laughed and left the room when she asked for that.