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Book review: "The Great Northern Express"

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In the year he turned 65 and was treated for prostrate cancer, Vermont writer Howard Frank Mosher took a summer to travel around the country for a book tour, driving his twenty-year-old Chevy Celebrity. In 65 very short chapters, Mosher reflects on that trip and looks back to 1964, the first year he lived in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. Betsy Kepes has this review of Mosher's new memoir, The Great Northern Express.

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Betsy Kepes
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Howard Frank Mosher makes the daring choice to cross the country in a battered old Chevrolet with almost 300,000 miles on the odometer.  He calls his car the  “Loser Cruiser” and it ferries him around New England, into the South, up to the Pacific Northwest, back through the mid-West and home to the place he lives and loves, Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Along the way he gives over 150 readings at independent bookstores and shares the front seat with various imaginary characters, most memorably the West Texas Jesus, or Hey-suess, a thoughtful apparition who always has a fresh can of Corona in his hand.

For those who hope this will be a travel book, disappointment lies ahead. Mosher devotes very little time to the landscapes he passes through. He does have some funny chapters about bad motel rooms and book readings with no attendees, but though you can take Mosher out of Vermont you can’t take the Vermont out of Mosher. Many of the chapters in the book tell stories about the first year Mosher and his wife Phillis lived in Orleans, Vermont, in 1964. They’d come north from central NYS to interview for teaching jobs at the local high school. Expecting extensive interviews they learned the school was looking for warm bodies. “Keep the kids out of the mill,” the school superintendent told them.

The two young teachers were welcomed into the community but Mosher found ugliness too beneath the beauty of the landscape. At the Orleans County Fair he was ushered into a “girlie show”. Mosher writes: “What I discovered was a new side of the Kingdom. A seething mob of mostly drunk men had congregated around a platform to engage in oral sex with the “performers”.”  Later in the year his school principal took him to bet on spurred roosters fighting to the death in the basement of a farmhouse.

In 1964, teaching and coaching absorbed most of Mosher’s day and night, leaving him almost no time to write. Yet in the spring when he received a fellowship to study Elizabethan literature in a PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania he wasn’t as happy as he thought he’d be. He writes: “How could I possibly cut myself off from this gold mine of material before I’d even staked a claim and begun to pan the surface?”

Fifty years and ten novels later, Mosher is still in northern Vermont and still writing his quirky stories about its people and landscape.

The Great Northern Express, subtitled “A Writer’s Journey Home” isn’t going to win any heavy-duty literary prizes. It’s a quick book to read and Mosher’s humor makes it fun. In a chapter titled “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dolt” Mosher describes an evening job he took in 1964 to earn Christmas money. At the five and dime store in Newport he was to clean and stock shelves. The manager didn’t like schoolteachers and made his new employee sweep the filthy floor with a broken broom. Mosher writes: “To shove it along in front of me, I had to bend way over at the waist, which delighted my boss. He began to call me Igor of the North.”

When he’s talking about his cancer, Mosher is more serious. In Chapter Seventeen, “Five Tips for Cancer Survivors”, Mosher suggests ways to stay occupied. His list: write, help others, laugh, drive, and, number five, read and discuss books.

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