Friday, June 08, 2007

Rural Writing: Howard Frank Mosher/Mark Twain

When Howard Frank Mosher first "invented" Kingdom County, his northern Vermont landscape stirred from several Northeast Kingdom towns into a set of heavily French Canadian neighborhoods, the comparison to Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County was inevitable. But with this year's publication of ON KINGDOM MOUNTAIN (Houghton Mifflin), Mosher moves without question to the shadow of that other icon of American rural fiction, Mark Twain. Consider the following:

Found money signified that a stranger was coming. Always, when she discovered even a lone forgotten dime in the pocket of an old smock, a stranger had shown up on the mountain soon afterward. Perhaps that was why her second sight had directed her to go out on the ice so late in the year. To lead her to a coin that would alert her to the arrival of a stranger who might help her prevent her cousin and the township from ramming that highway onto her mountain. Miss Jane shook her head over her own foolishness. She had no idea who might visit her mountain, and she needed no help in her battle with Eben and the high road. She really should think about acquiring a cat, she thought. An able, strong cat that lived rough and knew enough to appreciate a barn roof over its head and table scraps to eat in exchange for keeping down the mice. She might even invite it into the house of a winter evening, as long as it didn't jump on her bed. There would be no cats on Miss Jane Hubbell Kinneson's bed, thank you kindly. She pocketed the double eagle, picked up her ox goad, and prepared to head over the ice toward home.

That's Mosher, of course. Now read this:

There was a rustling of dresses, and the standing congregation sat down. The boy whose history this book relates did not enjoy the prayer, he only endured it -- if he even did that much. He was restive all through it; he kept tally of the details of the prayer, unconsciously -- for he was not listening, but he knew the ground of old, and the clergyman's regular route over it -- and when a little trifle of new matter was interlarded, his ear detected it and his whole nature resented it; he considered additions unfair, and scoundrelly. In the midst of the prayer a fly had lit on the back of the pew in front of him, and tortured his spirit by calmly rubbing its hands together, embracing its head with its arms, and polishing it so voigorously that it seemed to almost part company with the body, and the slender thread of a neck was exposed to view; scraping its wings with its hind legs and smoothing them to its body as if they had been coat-tails; going through its whole toilet as tranquilly as if it knew it was perfectly safe. As indeed it was; for as sorely as Tom's hand itched to grab for it they did not dare -- he believed his soul would be instantly destroyed it he did such a thing while the prayer was going on. But with the closing sentence his hand began to curve and steal forward; and the instand the "Amen" was out the fly was a prisoner of war. His aunt detected the act and made him let it go.

Which, of course, is from THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER. Yet the tone, the pace, the language are so similar that the two passages could have been drawn from a single volume, and certainly a single author.

The rural tradition of trickery flowers in both books, too. Tom Sawyer is perhaps best known for his enterprising method of getting others to do his painting chore for him, to the point where we mention Tom whenever anyone tries to convince us to do part of their assigned tasks under the label of "if you're really good enough, I might let you!" And in Mosher's tale, the two principal characters, Miss Jane and the stunt pilot soon to land in her life, Henry Satterfield, both specialize in keeping a few cards up their sleeves. Miss Jane knows the state law better than some of its judges do, and has a plan to protect her mountain from progress and its attendant highway. As for Henry -- need I say more than this, that his specialty has been convincing people that he can and does make the weather change, in particular to rain? Both Henry and Miss Jane carry an absolute conviction, too, that people who are fool enough to fall for their stunts deserve to be made into fools.

Beyond this somewhat cynical approach, Mosher and Twain share another similarity: a willingness to let details build on the page, whether about a fly or a midwinter fishing trip, in utter disregard for movement of the plot -- until the mound of details spills into action after all, and the character, still snugly clothed in whatever village attire best belongs, has nonetheless opened a row of buttons on the soul and given us a flash of vision.

Like Twain, Mosher insists on a language that his ear discovers. Miss Jane doesn't just teach, or read, or carve; she instructs. And Tom, in his dealings with his new friend Huck, forces the wilder boy into a "civilized" position within the community, just as he has seen to Becky and will eventually provide an answer to the issues raised by Injun Joe.

Though there are no fence-painting scenes in ON KINGDOM MOUNTAIN, there's a delicious fraud perpetrated by radio; there are also some lively revelations about love and lust that carry forward over decades of people's village existences. And though the ending to this cautionary tale is not exactly happy -- another parallel to TOM SAWYER -- it has its own satisfactions, and a neatly knitted conclusion, much like the final row of a long sock, turning at last to toe.

The book is scheduled for sale this month, and on June 26, Mosher will give a reading and signing at The Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, Vermont (for details see I can't think of a nicer way to celebrate a country summer evening than that.

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