Nancy Hayes Kilgore's second novel, "Wild Mountain" (Green Writers Press, 2017), is set in rural northwestern Vermont. The book begins with a spring thaw that combines with a hard rain to move the huge ice blocks in the river that then destroy the historic covered bridge at the center of the town and of the story.
Mona Duval, born and raised in Wild Mountain, lives on a hill overlooking the bridge and runs the general store on the river's shore. She's the author of a book summarizing the 150-year history of the bridge and watches in horror as it crumples into the water. Mona is less concerned about the impact on her business than about the town's loss of its iconic bridge.
Matters become more complex when the issue of the cost of replacing the bridge in its historic form leads to a conflict at Town Meeting. The old-timers in town, concerned about costs and taxes, oppose the more expensive traditional-style replacement option, while Mona and the head of the Selectboard, Roz Allingworth, Mona's childhood best friend, head the restoration faction.
While the controversy over the bridge replacement is the center of this book, the novel is really all about love. Through a series of love stories involving multiple couples, Kilgore gives the reader a veritable glossary of how love can both save and savage folks at all ages. Will Mona, divorced from her violent and mercurial husband John O. Duval, find happiness with Frank McFarland, a divorced, 50-year old entrepreneur who has had a cabin in Wild Mountain for many years and who is looking to settle down? Will Roz and Heather Brae, who grows organic vegetables, be able to hallow their relationship by successfully campaigning for Vermont's marriage equality law so they can marry? Will Erica McFarland, Frank's 25-year-old New York City-based daughter, find common ground with Jake Perez, the Burlington newspaper reporter who arrives in town to write about the bridge collapse? Will the teen-aged Sierra and Grace figure out what love means with the ethereal and spiritual Gus Throckmorton and the juvenile delinquent Robbie Fayerweather?
If this sounds complicated, it is. When you throw in the conflict over the bridge, the petition to replace Roz as the "dyke Selectboard Chair," the torching of Heather's farm stand, the Montpelier demonstration for marriage equality, the spiritual Neolithic stone circle and cave on the Mountain, and the rescue of a baby moose from the ice-clogged river, you might think you'd have a hard time following the story line, but Kilgore does a fine job of developing these subplots and skillfully weaving them together.
The novel occasionally threatens to collapse beneath the weight of the somewhat overdrawn stereotypes of the villagers, but Kilgore avoids this triteness trap because she is a skilled writer who creates beautiful sentences and superb descriptions, especially lists. Heather's exotically named vegetables are Purple Passion asparagus, Golden Mama tomatoes, Green Fingers cucumbers. Frank's kitchen drawer falls to the floor and "spilled a cascade of pennies, quarters, pesos, New Zealand twenty-cent coins with the Maori carving, pencil stubs, ballpoint pens, notepads, loose crumpled scraps of paper with penciled notes from ten years ago, a tattered checkbook, loose keys whose use had been lost with time, an old Wild Mountain town report, and a desiccated mouse, for God's sake." Admit it; we all have a drawer like that!
The best writing reflects the author's love for the Vermont landscape in all of its seasons, including the mud of March and April, the floods that come with spring melt, and the ability to snowshoe on a mountain top in the spring when it's 60 degrees and greening up in the valley. Star billing goes to Wild Mountain ("the Abanoosic Valley shimmered, the browns and greens of the trees softening the stark white of the snow and beyond the valley, as clear as he'd ever seen it, with its pristine snowcap, stood Wild Mountain") and the river as much as to the love stories.
Kilgore was the 2016 recipient of the Vermont Writers Award, given annually by Green Mountain Power and Vermont Magazine for an early version of the Mona and Frank story. As a pastoral counselor with 20 years of experience, she has drawn on her first-hand knowledge of the variety and richness of the human experience to write a fine novel. Filled with colorful characters and built around many of the contemporary issues that continue to roil Vermont today — the opioid crisis, taxes and the ability of multi-generational families to stay on the land, gay rights, and domestic violence — this is the Vermont winter equivalent of the summer beach read. Curl up with it by the wood stove and think warm thoughts about next spring's green mist in the hills.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville, Vermont, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. His website www.epsteinreads.com has more than 1,000 ideas for what to read next.