Saturday, July 25, 2015

Quintessential Vermont: SHAPE OF THE SKY, Shelagh Connor Shapiro

Summer has settled around us, warm and humid, with lush gardens and the hum of lawnmowers, sometimes a tractor. The pond on the ridge is quiet. The blackbird babies have left the nest and their parents no longer shriek when I walk toward the willow thicket along the shore. Even the frogs have turned lazy and replete -- the peepfrogs don't need to issue mating calls any longer, and the fat green frogs with their hoarse banjo-string croaks only sound off once an hour or so.

But along with all that lazy contentment are patches of exhilaration and eager preparation, a few towns from here, as the much-photographed hill town of Peacham prepares for its annual "Peacham Acoustic Music Festival." I visited the café at the "four-corners" at the center of the village last week, and half the conversations touched on the festival ... it's coming soon, along with all those musicians.

Yet how different this celebration of traditional music is from some other summer festivals that have taken place in the Green Mountains in the past decades: the Grateful Dead in concert; Farm Aid mini versions; years of the Bread & Puppet Domestic Resurrection Circus.

And those are the events and times that Vermont author Shelagh Connor Shapiro captures in her 2014 novel SHAPE OF THE SKY, a gentle mystery in multiple voices. As the book opens, it's late winter, and farmers Georgia and Bill Farnham share impressions during the annual meeting of the tiny Vermont town of Resolute, population 613. When the proposal for the town to host a concert of the state's most famous band (now internationally famous) passes by vote, the Farnhams have their own way of deciding whether to plant the cornfield as usual in the coming spring -- or prepare to grid their field into campsites for the band's devoted followers and thousands in the audience.

Two weeks before the festival, there will be a death of a young woman -- a plot twist that's soon revealed -- and Rita Frederick, who's told everyone all along that the festival would be a mistake, will have her satisfaction. But the loss and sorrow of the death resonated more with other characters in the many-voiced tale, in the best of ways: through the love they have for each other and the tenderness with which they view even the visiting band followers, dreadlocks and all.

Love, it turns out, is what Shapiro portrays best of all. There's the trusting, solid affection of the long-married Farnhams; the twisted but reliable love of Rita Frederick for her aging father, and his for her; the possibility of romance for wheelchair-bound Becca Akyn and the shifting form of love she has for her son Carter; and in a sense, even the death that takes place involves a young woman uncertain of what her dream of marriage will involve. And, ironically, the long-term affection of the members of the band Perilous Between for each other.

Delicately threaded through the book is Shapiro's image of what village life offers for choices, as the band's concert tour arrives under the name "Shape of the Sky" -- a reference to the way the mountains and trees create the edges of the Vermont sky, but also to each person's separate idea of what the phrase might mean.

Don't choose this one for a "mystery" (it's hard to even say whether there's a sleuth here, just a quiet police presence) -- choose it instead for a garden of gentle storytelling that blesses the landscape. The sweetness of the story will linger, long after the plot twists are all neatly resolved and the characters, memorable and unusual, have become part of the good dream of a book well read and well resolved. Published by Wind Ridge Books of Vermont, and available at the usual outlets, especially independent bookstores.

1 comment:

Shelagh Connor Shapiro said...

Many thanks for this lovely review! If anyone might be free at the last minute, I'll be reading from Shape of the Sky tonight as part of the Celebration of Expressive Arts at the Inn in Montgomery Center. 7 pm!