On Howard Frank Mosher | By Castle Freeman, Jr.
This year marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Disappearances, a novel by Howard Frank Mosher. Readers have found in this book a view of rural Vermont that is unsurpassed for originality, color, and life. It is a strange, phantasmagorical work, but its central story is pretty straightforward. In the year 1932, during Prohibition, Bill Bonhomme, an eccentric hardscrabble farmer in the wild, forested northeast of Vermont, sets out with his son and brother-in-law to run a load of contraband booze from Canada, via the big lake, Memphremagog, that straddles the border. The escapade is entirely characteristic of Bill, a man who, in hard times and in a hard land, maintains a manic cheer in all things. As his son, the book’s narrator, recalls him,
My father was a man of indefatigable optimism. As a hill farmer during The Depression, Quebec Bill Bonhomme had opportunities almost daily to succumb to total despair, but he was impervious to discouragement of every kind… It made no difference to him if it was the middle of May and snowing hard with six inches of new snow in the dooryard. He would squint up through the driving flakes and say to me, ‘Wild Bill, this is the snow that takes the snow. This is the poor man’s fertilizer.’
Embarked on their adventure, the three would-be rumrunners soon find themselves pursued by a rival bootlegger called Carcajou, a nemesis-figure who is to other whiskey smugglers what Moby-Dick is to other whales. Carcajou is uncanny, fatal, scarcely human—scarcely even material. When he catches up with the Bonhommes, a climactic confrontation occurs.
In and around this story the author hangs a rich fictitious curtain of highly-colored history about the region and its people going back a couple of hundred years. Mosher invents an elaborate system of family and local mythology that plays in and out of the main narrative. He also constructs a remarkable picture of his setting, the made-up Kingdom County. Mosher imbues his dark, violent, suspenseful tale with an odd and unexpected kind of optimism or zest for life that may be the most original thing about the book.
In 1977 Howard Frank Mosher, born and raised in upstate New York, was a former high school English teacher in his mid-thirties living in northern Vermont. Disappearances was his first novel. Reviewers sometimes didn’t know quite what to make of it. Readers, however (as I recall) embraced the book immediately. Mosher’s accomplishment was to rescue Vermont both from the literary calendar artists and from the post-agrarian realists, establishing the state as a territory distinctly in and of the modern world (at least the modern world of fiction), a place, as his narrator says of Kingdom County, “full of terror, full of wonder.”
NER Digital is a creative writing series for the web. Castle Freeman, Jr., lives in southern Vermont. He has been an occasional contributor of fiction to New England Review for many years. For more information, go to www.castlefreemanjr.com.