Where the Rivers Flow North by Howard Frank Mosher (1978)
In this collection of six short stories and the title novella set between the 1920s and the 1970s, Howard Frank Mosher explores the hardships and small victories of life (and death) in Kingdom County, Vermont. Mosher has an eye for describing northeastern Vermont’s stark beauty while at the same time plumbing the depths of characters shaped and hardened by that same landscape.
In “Alabama Jones,” twenty year-old Bill is offered a chance—possibly the only one he’ll ever get—to leave Kingdom County when a girl who sings on the fair circuit spends a few days with him. He wishes he’d never met her because he knows he will never leave.
“First Snow” is the story of two half-brothers with conflicting notions of a man’s responsibility to his family, society and the land he owns. It’s also one my favorites of all Mosher’s stories.
In “Kingdom County Come,” Henry Coville is an old man who grew up working in lumber camps until he went to fight in France during World War One, where he lost a lung during a gas attack. When he got home, the lumber boom had fallen and he took to running bootleg whiskey and working as a hunting guide. “Fifty years went by, went somewhere, and for some reason or perhaps no reason his remaining lung was suddenly decaying like the diseased elms on the village green.” A self-reliant man his entire life, Henry becomes increasingly frail, “annoyed with himself for what he couldn’t help.” But he knows what he has to do while he still has the strength to do it.
There there’s the title novella. “Where the Rivers Flow North” brings us Noël Lord and his “housekeeper,” a Penobscot Indian named Bangor. Noël is another man who talks about leaving his land. In his case, it’s because the Northern Vermont Power Company is building a dam on the river that runs through Noël’s property. He and other old-timers like him will be flooded out if they do not move. Noël takes the power company’s money and makes plans to relocate in Oregon, but he is too closely tied to his land. He has left several times over the years, but has always returned. With the completion of the dam, that will no longer be an option. Bangor is one of Mosher’s greatest characters, and a perfect foil for the taciturn Noël Lord.
Mosher has won many awards over the years and “Where the Rivers Flow North” was made into a movie starring Rip Torn, Tantoo Cardinal and Michael J. Fox. Like Mosher’s books, the film did well with critics but did not gain a wide audience. That’s too bad, because his work is accessible, enjoyable and significant.
I had originally planned to write about Ernest Hebert’s 1979 novel The Dogs of March for this week’s installment. However, Lisa Kenney has already done so (and better than I would have) on her blog. I hope you’ll go there and read what she has to say. The Dogs of March was the first of Hebert’s beautifully dark novels set in his fictional town of Darby, New Hampshire. It’s as good and valuable as anything by Annie Proulx, William Gay, Howard Frank Mosher, the late Ruth Moore, Ivan Doig, Richard Russo or William Kennedy.
Like Where the Rivers Flow North, The Dogs of March was originally published by Penguin, but is currently available from Hardscrabble Press/University Press of New England.