Michael F. Epstein: Howard Frank Mosher, Vermont's own Homer

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When Howard Frank Mosher died on Jan. 29, Vermont lost its greatest storyteller and the chronicler of a past age in the Northeast Kingdom. His memoir and 11 novels vividly recreated the landscape, the characters, and a way of life in a part of our state that is beautifully endowed by Nature, lightly populated, and perhaps least affected by the intrusions of the modern world.

I had already read and enjoyed a number of Mosher's novels and had seen four of the movie adaptations done by Jay Craven with Mosher's collaboration, but upon learning of his death, I decided to read his memoir, The Great Northern Express, published in 2012.

Mosher weaves two rich and engaging stories into alternate chapters in this book. One tale describes how Mosher and his wife, Phillis, upon graduating from Syracuse University in 1964, answered an ad for new teachers in Orleans, Vt. The tale of how they came to live for more than half a century in the Northeast Kingdom, first teaching and then devoting full time to immersion in the history, culture, and customs of their adopted territory is entertaining. In typical Mosher style, it is filled with colorful characters like his first boss, the 2-3 quart of beer/day superintendent of schools. What is evident is his devotion and respect for the people in that corner of Vermont, to his marriage, and to his craft.

The second story line in The Great Northern Express relates his adventures on a book tour which took him to all corners of the U.S. He first envisioned this cross country odyssey as a young man's adventure to be shared with his Uncle Reg. Reg had since died, but the odyssey lived on in Mosher's mind and heart. Turning 65 and having finished radiation therapy for newly diagnosed prostate cancer, he finally decided to take that trip, and he used the publication of a new book as the reason to launch a book tour in his 20 year old Chevy, the "Loser Cruiser." He introduces the reader to some of America's great independent bookstores and their owners along the way, and his adventures include encounters with an enraged moose, late night revelers in his low rent motel, and fanciful conversations with various hitchhiking mirages including Jesus and Oliver Sacks.

Strangely, he never mentions the name of the book that he spends weeks and thousands of miles presenting. To learn that, I emailed Jay Craven who referred me to Mosher's wife, Phillis, who kindly and promptly emailed back the answer.

The book was "Walking to Gatlinburg," a real departure from Mosher's earlier books because, although it begin in Kingdom County with the familiar Kenniston family, it soon turns south. The novel follows 17-year-old Morgan Kenniston as he searches for his older brother, Pilgrim, a Union Army doctor gone missing after Gettysburg. Along the way, Morgan encounters an incredible cast of characters and undergoes fantastic adventures beginning with Jesse Moses, an escaped slave. Before he is murdered, Moses gives Morgan a stone whose runes form a map of the Underground Railroad. The Railroad is the central plot element in this book, since four Southern murderers who had escaped from a Union prison are determined to kill Morgan, retrieve the stone, and eliminate the Railroad. The adventures and the strange characters kept on coming, including Kenniston's escape from a bearskin covered giant of a man in a cave called Polyphemus's Pupil, until it dawned on me that Morgan Kenniston was not just on any trip, but on an Odyssey, and Mosher was not just any storyteller, but a modern Homer.

There's a parallel between the Odyssey and Walking to Gatlinberg. In both, the main characters, Morgan Kenniston and Odysseus are strong, sly, introspective, and flawed heroes struggling to reach home. The Northeast Kingdom is Kenniston's Ithaca, and many of Morgan's adventures paralleled those of Odysseus transposed by Mosher from ancient Greece to America of 1864. Mosher's adoption of the Homeric style is also evident in The Great Northern Express where he used an extended trek to convey the richness, complexity, and humanity of the encounters and adventures along the way. Odysseus was trying to get back to Penelope. Mosher was trying to get back to Phillis.

Howard Frank Mosher was a unique and wonderful part of the Vermont literary scene for decades. We will miss this modern Homer's telling of rich and powerful stories filled with colorful characters and events, but not until after his final work, Points North, finished shortly before his death, is published later this year. One way to recognize and honor him today is to read his work. You will not be disappointed.

— Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville, Vt. and Cambridge, Mass. He can be reached at mfepstein@gmail.com.


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