Vermont, with all of its natural beauty and rich history, is a place where two worlds co-exist side by side, largely untouched by each other. One Vermont is manifest in the outlet shops in Manchester, the theater and music available from Weston to Hardwick and from Randolph to Marlboro, the fine dining and chic shops of Burlington and Stowe, and the big glass and wood second homes being built on hillsides near thriving ski mountains. The other Vermont is evident in the empty store fronts that line many of our Main Streets, the worn-out trailers at the edges of towns, and the crumbling barns and farmhouses in mountain valleys and back hills. It is the latter Vermont that is the main setting in two fine books authored by local writers — Bill Schubart, a native of the Northeast Kingdom and now a resident of Hinesberg, and Robin MacArthur, born and now living in Marlboro.
Schubart's book, "Lila and Theron," (Charles Michael Publishing, 2017) is a slim volume written in plain, unadorned language laid out in short sentences and brief paragraphs. We meet Theron, the main character, in the book's first sentence at his birth; his death, 94 years later is recounted in the book's final sentence. In between, Schubart introduces us to a group of memorable and caring characters around Elmore where Theron grows up first in foster care after his mother dies and then with his alcoholic, depressed father until he also dies. Theron goes to school, marries his classmate Lila, and works the subsistence dairy farm left to him, never going more than a few miles from his birthplace. The community's support in the roles of the poor administrator, the town nurse, the school teacher, the foster family, the neighbors, and most of all his Uncle Adrian enable this deeply-wounded and scarred young man to emerge sad but strong, steady, and loving.
His young wife, Lila also lost a parent when her father drowned on a log run on the Big River that went bad. Her mother, disabled by chronic arthritis and grief, sends Lila from Springfield to Elmore to live with her aunt and uncle. Lila and Theron, both orphaned, are drawn to each other, and most of the book recounts their 71 year marriage, their childless years on the farm, their simple pleasures, and their love and commitment. Theron's care for his aging wife will move even the most reserved reader to tears. The hard lives of Vermont's farmers, loggers, trappers, and laborers are conveyed with subtlety and passion. Schubart makes clear the importance of community support and interdependence for survival in this hard and challenging environment.
Robin MacArthur's collection of short stories, "Half Wild" (Ecco, Harper Collins, 2016) has a photograph on its cover of a house upended and atilt probably due to Hurricane Irene. Like that house, MacArthur's characters have been buffeted ,tipped off balance, and injured not by a physical storm, but by the storms of poverty, abuse, addiction, alcohol, and crime. These eleven stories are beautifully written, moving, and sad. After reading the first few, I began to feel that they were all the same — lives constricted into double-wides, drinking, dead-end jobs, failed love affairs and marriages, sickness and death in one woman after another, one family and the next family. But as the stories accumulated, the characters living on Silver Creek and Round Mountain near Nelson instead became distinctive, well-developed, and detailed, eliciting sympathy and caring from this reader. Sons returning to their birth places, daughters returning to their families, grandmothers anguishing over the future of their farms and their children — in every story, place is the critical factor, and time is the agent of change. In the final story, a daughter returns to her hippie mother's falling down house and overgrown fields to care for her when the latter is diagnosed with breast cancer. It is a finely wrought jewel and certain to move any reader. Half Wild is a beautiful and powerful debut.
These two books, written by Vermont natives, accomplish in fiction what several recent non-fiction books have addressed. There is an America which has been left behind in dying small towns and bankrupt farms with few prospects and little hope of improving that situation. The non-fiction books tell this story with statistics and graphs; Schumbart and MacArthur tell their stories with fictional characters who are living real lives in our beautiful state. There have always been poverty, illness, suffering, and trouble in our world, but as Schumbart shows, the strong presence of family, community, interdependence, and mutual support enabled people in difficult circumstances to survive and make lives in the early and mid-20th century. MacArthur's tales of 21st century Vermont raise the question as to whether those values may have so eroded that thriving is out of the question and even surviving is at risk. These are important books to read, but make sure you have a box of Kleenex handy.
— Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician with a deep interest in reading and writing. He lives in Brownsville, Vt., and Cambridge, Mass.