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Book review: "Up on a Hill and Thereabouts"

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During the depression, how did a single mom with two kids support herself in a rural Adirondack community? Gloria Stubing Rist grew up on Chilson Hill near Ticonderoga at a time when a spare penny was hard to come by. Betsy Kepes reviews Up on a Hill and Thereabouts.

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Betsy Kepes
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Gloria Stubing Rist remembers her mother as an entrepreneur who built a shack of salvaged lumber and created the Top of the Hill dance hall. "Mim" planned to sell coffee, cigarettes and home-brew to men working on the state road to Schroon Lake from Ticonderoga. But the start of the roadwork was delayed. Rist writes:

Mim didn't say anything to us kids, but young as I was, I realized we were in big trouble. There we were, a woman and two little kids, no money, no food, nobody to help, and winter was coming. Mim never once considered going to Ti to sign up for "Relief". What a horrible thing that would have been —- pride would not allow it. The New Deal was never going to get us!

Rist's memoir, Up on a Hill and Thereabouts, is rough around the edges, but it's a jewel of a book. In ninety-three very short chapters, she brings back to life a mountain community of the 1930's. Alcoholic bums gather in the backfield and have a feast of purloined food culminating in slugs of "canned heat" — fuel alcohol heated up to a liquid and strained through a handkerchief. The merchandise at Eddie's Emporium consists of puffballs, dandelion wine, worms for fishing, ginseng, and wild horseradish, a root so strong it could "sear your teeth right off". Rist says everyone ate it with their boiled potatoes.

Bubby and Gloria loved their mother and did their best when she would disappear for days at a time. The adult Gloria doesn't speculate as to where her mother went, and that is part of the charm of this book. Rist presents her memories and doesn't muddy their impact with analysis. Are some exaggerated or inaccurate? Most likely, but the writing feels vivid and fresh. Here's a clip from a chapter called "On Swimming Holes and Pigs".

The fatter the pig the better in those days. It showed what a good farmer the pig's owner was and that the pig contained lots of grease needed to fry donuts, potatoes, etc....It was Goof-Goof's and Oink-Oink's time to be killed. Bub and I were up at dawn gathering wood and old tires in a pile as Mim told us to do. An awful sick feeling was coming over me.

The men came and I could see scorn in their eyes for our long, lean old pigs, not hardly an ounce of fat anywhere. How could they be fat? Bub and I had played with them as horses, round and round the pen every day all summer. They never had time to lie around and get fat.

By the time Rist was eleven she looked fourteen and she's matter of fact when she writes about running from a drunk neighbor, jumping out of the car of an older boy and escaping the advances of a lumberjack. But she has good memories, too.

On a secluded beach on nearby Eagle Lake kids kept a log raft and old cooking pots to make freshwater clam stew flavored with vegetables from home gardens. Rist writes:

The water along the shore was very warm for about three feet out in the lake from the sun beating down on it. Warm water was a luxury to us. If we had any at home, the water had to be heated on a stove in a pot. So we sat in that lovely warm water in the lake and rolled around in it. The boys wrassled in it and the girls splashed each other. We laughed all the while for the sheer joy of having that warm water. We were so happy on Crown Point Bay, laughing, laughing, laughing all the time.

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