Reading New England: Vermont

Posted May 6, 2016 by Lory in challenges / 14 Comments

"The autumn glow of Vermont..." Bennington College, basis for the setting of The Secret History
“The autumn glow of Vermont…” Bennington College, basis for the setting of The Secret History

In our Reading New England challenge, I’m focusing this month on the lovely Green Mountain State, Vermont. This is the least populous of the six states, the only one with under a million people, in spite of being larger in area than either Rhode Island or New Hampshire.

In early American fiction, Vermont is often treated as a backwoods, middle-of-nowhere sort of place that characters either emerge from or retreat to in contrast to the “real life” of Boston or New York. In Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis, the title character is a doctor who ends up abandoning his high-powered career to hide out in the Vermont woods and pursue independent research. And in The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells, Lapham’s rise involves leaving a Vermont farm behind to move to the fashionable Back Bay neighborhood as he grows a successful business.

But in spite of this inauspicious literary beginning, over the years Vermont has produced, been home to, or temporarily hosted some pretty amazing authors, including Shirley Jackson (Life Among the Savages), Karen Hesse (Witness), Robert Newton Peck (A Day No Pigs Would Die), Chris Bohjalian (Midwives), Bill McKibben (Wandering Home), and Donna Tartt (The Secret History). Vermont may lack a major urban hub, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have many fascinating stories to tell.

A new Vintage Classics cover for Pollyanna, illustration by Dawn Cooper
A new Vintage Classics cover for Pollyanna, illustration by Dawn Cooper

As this challenge progresses, I feel I’m getting so behind in my reading list that I hesitate to add more to it! But as well as being interested in all of the books mentioned above, I’d really like to read First Person Rural by Noel Perrin. I enjoyed his books-about-books, A Reader’s Delight and A Child’s Delight, and I’d like to hear about his adventures going from life in New York City to a farm in Vermont.

I also want to finally read the much-maligned children’s classic Pollyanna by Eleanor Porter. Is it really as sappy as its reputation would suggest? And I would like to delve more into the works of Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who is now best known for her children’s novel Understood Betsy, but who was a prolific writer of adult novels, short stories, nonfiction, and criticism as well.

And I’m looking forward to sharing an interview with Dede Cummings of Green Writers Press, an exciting new venture that brings together the cultural and environmental passions that run so strong in Vermont. I’ve already reviewed one of their books, Galvanized by poet Leland Kinsey, and I’ll be reviewing the novel Hidden View this month as well. We can be grateful for all that this small-but-mighty state has given us, past and present.

What are your favorite Vermont books or authors? You can find more suggestions on the New England Book List, and be sure to link up your own posts by state or genre.

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14 responses to “Reading New England: Vermont

  1. I’m a fan of Shirley Jackson, and I also want to read something, really anything, by Chris Bohjalian. I keep taking his books out of the library and then returning them unread because other books pop up. I would also like to know whether Pollyanna is sappy or not. I vaguely remember watching the movie as a kid, but I don’t remember much of it, other than the fact that she seemed to always be in a good mood.

  2. I remember loving the Pollyanna movie when I was little, but then again, I loved any movie I was allowed to watch when I was little. 🙂 It would be interesting to hear someone’s modern-day thoughts on the book! The cover is sweet.

    • I never saw the movie, so all I will know about Pollyanna going in is that her name is a byword for forced cheerfulness. It was only when looking for books for the challenge that I actually realized her story was set in Vermont.

  3. I really enjoyed Pollyanna and didn’t find it too sappy, but then I’ve always been a fan of the Haley Mills movie version of this story, too. Just call me old-fashioned. 🙂 And even though I chose to read Understood Betsy for my Vermont read this year, I’m hoping to read Tartt’s The Secret History this summer. It just sounds so good…but then they all do. Good luck with your growing reading list!

    • The Secret History is also a good pick for the SF/Mystery category. I ought to reread it myself…help, the list does not stop growing!

  4. I read Pollyanna as a child and I think I Glad Gamed everyone around me into oblivion one summer. I don’t remember enjoying the sequels very much, but they were extremely stinky ex-library copies which may have had something to do with it. Have never dared reread any of them because of their now awful reputation, and I did like the first one and don’t especially want to spoil the memory. So I’m keen to know what you make of it!

    • I don’t know how it passed me by in childhood when I normally loved that kind of old-fashioned tale. Well, it will be interesting to see how it strikes me now.

  5. I spent three (mostly) happy summers in Vermont as a child, attending one of the Farm & Wilderness camps there. At that time, the camps ran 2 sessions, each 4 weeks long, and most campers attended both. How my mother afforded it, I’ll never know (possibly I had a scholarship), but it was a wonderful experience and taught me to love the Green Mountains. Even now, a whiff from a balsam pillow will take me back in memory. I took my family to visit in 2010, on our way home from a road trip to Nova Scotia. We briefly visited my camp; wandered around Plymouth Notch, Calvin Coolidge’s home; toured the von Trapp family resort (which I’d wanted to do since reading Maria von Trapp’s first memoir), and of course took a tour of the original Ben & Jerry’s factory. It was a wonderful trip!

    The only books I’ve read from those you mention are Understood Betsy, which is charming, and Pollyanna, which I do think is not nearly as sappy as people paint it. Pollyanna really works hard to be optimistic; her life has not been a bed of roses. Noel Perrin’s books-about-books are headed onto my to-read list, and First Person Rural sounds tempting as well.

    • I’ve loved every place I’ve been to in Vermont and would like to spend more time there. I’ll go there via books if I can’t make it in person…

  6. I can’t think of a Vermont book that I really want to read this month, but I have read and enjoyed The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman, Wandering Home by McKibben, and The Secret History. (Have also read Midwives and don’t remember much about it.) I look forward to reading any reviews of those books.

  7. Understood Betsy was a childhood favorite of mine, and I remember liking Polyanna just fine. Witness is one of my favorite YA books–it’s a great example of novels in verse, of multiple points of view, and of historical fiction. IMO, it’s Hesse’s best work.

    Two of my professors at Middlebury College in Vermont are writers of some reknown: Julia Alvarez and Jay Parini. I also took a creative writing class from a guy named Don Mitchell, who’d written this very hippy book called “Thumb Tripping” back when he was in college in the 1960s. It was optioned for a movie, so he and his then-girlfriend decided to use the money to buy a sheep farm in Vermont. So those are the other Vermont authors I’m familiar with. Oh, and Frost, of course!

    • I will definitely have to read Witness soon – one of those books I don’t think I would have found except for this challenge.

      And now I’ve looked up Don Mitchell. Thumb Tripping looks very hippy indeed, but his 2013 memoir Flying Blind sounds interesting. Putting it on my nonfiction list. Thanks!

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