Wednesday, June 12, 2013

CROSSING JACK BROOK: Love and Death in the Woods, by Paul Lefebvre

[A particular note to readers beyond Vermont: This book may be exactly right for you, in spite of being set in a very small place. Read all the way through the review, and you may see possibilities.]

There are places whose names evoke powerful images and memories: San Francisco, or the route of the Circle Line Ferry around Manhattan, or the coast of Alaska. As the locations narrow, they call up more specific reactions: the weather station at the top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire, or a waterfall hidden in the woods of childhood. Even a kitchen chair.

Paul Lefebvre's third book, CROSSING JACK BROOK: LOVE AND DEATH IN THE WOODS, is set almost entirely in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, a rural and in many ways isolated region where there's room for people to be themselves, as kindly and generously and sometimes "brokenly" as they wish. (Yes, this is the second review in the past week to talk about the Northeast Kingdom; the other is at

And Lefebvre narrows the focus further, to the "Upper Kingdom," the section of Orleans and Essex counties -- mostly Essex in this book -- where the Interstate isn't part of daily life, the mail carrier knows your family, and your management skills can be measured by the amount of dry wood you've split, stacked, and covered for the next heating season.

Time also narrows here: Lefebvre's weekly column in the Chronicle, an award-winning neighborly newspaper in the area, can ramble in a mellow way through an episode on a farm, in a forest, or leaning on the counter at the general store. But as he explains at the start of the book, "When the woman I lived with became ill with cancer in 2005, I began writing about it in [that] column." Through the nine months that followed, which led to the death of that woman, artist Elin K. Paulson, the column made it possible for a wide community to treasure the connection to Elin, as well as to Paul himself. And then, in the way that loss can capture life, it also captured the column, living onward after Elin's death, commenting on what the couple's shared lives had been and how Elin's absence continued to affect the writer and the widening circles of friends.

Stained glass by Elin K. Paulson
For CROSSING JACK BROOK, Lefebvre took segments of his published columns from August 1994 to May 2010, and enfolded them in commentary and reflection. In some ways it's a journal within a journal -- love on the inside, with the struggles that it takes to craft and honor a working relationship, and love/loss, a different garment, on the outside. Lefebvre makes it work well, coupled with another pairing: a time that was (including the early idealistic years of the area's most noted communal group), and a time that is and that continues. In that sense the book is a poem, and also a place of its own, a brook of moments that flash in the sunlight, then shatter.

The couple also inhabited two homes: their shared one that is still Lefebvre's, and a cabin in an area now mostly uninhabited but once a busy logging village: Lost Nation. The cabin was Elin's, not just her home for many years before joining Lefebvre, but also her work of art and a display place for paintings, sculpture, and collections of stone, metal, wood. Jack Brook lay between the working world and the cabin.
To cross Jack Brook was to enter a world that had been shaped or colored by an imagination nearly always in gear. "This is where we find the essence of Elin," I said to one of the boys from Island Pond who had come with me to Lost Nation a few days after her death to see what had to be done in preparation for the [planned life-celebrating] tribute. No doubt the loggers who had once inhabited the space wouldn't have recognized the grounds or the cabin. Never locked, the screen door to the cabin was fastened shut with a simple hook and eye screw, while the inner door, homemade and somewhat crude, held a geometric painting in pastel colors and a pad of paper on a string.
Lefebvre's "now" commentary, framing the earlier columns, suggests that the twosome had to "mature and become more of ourselves" before they could settle into living together. The commitment that they forged saw them to a harder crossing than the one over the brook.

In both layers of the book are conversations, the small exchanges of questions and responses that make up a relationship. To see Elin through Paul Lefebvre's eyes is to see an artist who pushed the edges of vision and color, while remaining practical and matter-of-fact about herself and her life. It is, in a sense, to travel the road that fortunate lovers walk, discovering what makes the beloved so irresistible, so "meant" to be there.

Reading CROSSING JACK BROOK conveys several gifts: a reassurance of how direct love and art can be, a caring terrain of grief, an admission of how much we all don't know about how to handle the later years of life, as lovers and friends die and the world changes around us.

Lefebvre writes near his conclusion, "Writing is the only strength I have; I have no idea how my words might strike those who read them. But a friend, who is also a writer, told me that wasn't important. What is important, he said, is for a writer to open his heart."

So if your bookshelf has few items that focus so tightly on a small segment of Vermont, but you have savored the writing of, say, Gretel Ehrlich or Edward Hoagland or Terry Tempest Williams, CROSSING JACK BROOK could be your delight this season. Copies can be found at northern Vermont bookstores (including Green Mountain Books in Lyndonville, Vermont, where there's a reading and signing on June 14; 802-626-5051 and and through the Vermont Historical Society (; ignore the rather lame book description there). I wish you time to enjoy this one. Maybe it's a good idea to purchase two copies -- so you have one to give to a friend who'll share the experience. It's worth the investment of the heart.

1 comment:

Alton said...

This is cool!