New Howard Frank Mosher novel doffs chapeau to college’s Twilight
MIDDLEBURY — Vermont author Howard Frank Mosher draws much of his literary inspiration from the people and places in his native Northeast Kingdom. But he occasionally strays to points north or south for complementary characters, as he did with his latest book, “God’s Kingdom,” which includes a cast member loosely based on Alexander Twilight of Middlebury College fame.
The Kinnerson family is at the center of “God’s Kingdom,” much as it was in his much-acclaimed 1989 offering, “A Stranger in the Kingdom.” In “Stranger,” Jim Kinneson — a high school student in a fictional Northeast Kingdom town — narrates the story about the murder of a young runaway and the black Presbyterian minister in the community who is charged with her killing.
Through the pages of “God’s Kingdom,” readers become reacquainted with Jim Kinneson and other members of his clan and their long relationship with others in the Northeast Kingdom of the early to mid-1950s. Through a series of literary vignettes — some of them humorous, others deeply touching — Mosher nudges Jim Kinneson toward the denouement of a dark family mystery that changes his life and his impression of the community in which he was lovingly raised.
“To me, the book is somewhat more of a collection of stories, rather than a traditional novel with a plot,” Mosher, 73, said during an interview this past Thursday at the Addison Independent.
Jim Kinneson narrates the stories, which occur as he is attending Kingdom Common Academy in the (fictional) Kingdom County, Vt. Kinneson experiences a number of adventures with various cousins, classmates, academy faculty and his beloved grandfather.
Another prominent player in the book is Pliny Templeton, the late founder and first headmaster of the academy. He was an African American and former slave, who put himself through the state university and Princeton Theological Seminary. From his humble beginnings, he became a renowned minister, educator, abolitionist and Civil War hero — who died under violent and mysterious circumstances that are ultimately clarified in the book.
Mosher said Pliny’s character was inspired by Alexander Twilight, the first African-American person known to have earned a bachelor’s degree from an American college or university. He graduated from Middlebury College in 1823. During his ensuing career he was an educator, minister and politician. In 1829, Twilight became principal of the Orleans County Grammar School. He designed and built Athenian Hall, the first granite public building in the state at the time. In 1836, he became the first African American elected as a state legislator, serving in the Vermont General Assembly.
Admittedly, there are some major differences between Templeton and Twilight, Mosher acknowledged. Among other things, Templeton was missing a hand, which he had lopped off himself with an ax in order to free himself from chains that a slave owner had used to detain him back in Louisiana. Templeton took the drastic action in order to search for his wife, who had been sold to another plantation. He never found his wife and ultimately made his way to Vermont as a free man, according to Mosher’s narrative.
“I took some huge liberties with Alexander Twilight’s story,” Mosher said.
There’s another story in “God’s Kingdom” that is rooted in Addison County. It surrounds the local baseball team’s ill-fated bus trip to see the Red Sox play a doubleheader against the Yankees at Fenway Park. Jim Kinneson is driving the bus when it gets stuck in an old covered bridge. The team gets nervous when the local constable pulls up and notices the damage the bus has done to the span. Rendering the situation even more delicate is that the team (with the exception of Kinneson) is tanked up on beer.
While the constable decides whether to give the boys a ticket, three carloads of Pony League ballplayers on their way from Bradford to North Conway pull up and start chanting, “Throw the cop in the river.”
The episode has a happy ending, however, as the constable not only forgoes the ticket, he ends up umpiring a game between the Pony League and the stranded baseball team while Kinneson goes for help to extricate the bus from the bridge. The constable even dips into the team’s beer stash.
Mosher confirmed the bus story was inspired by an actual experience he had in the historic Pulp Mill Bridge that links Middlebury with Weybridge across the Otter Creek on Seymour Street. It was more than 40 years ago, and Mosher was serving as a social worker, driving a bus load of youths through the Pulp Mill Bridge when the vehicle got stuck. A Middlebury constable showed up and drew a chant of “Throw the cop in the river” from the young passengers, to Mosher’s horror.
Mosher still wonders to this day how much damage the bus did to the Pulp Mill Bridge, which of course has been rehabbed several times since that incident.
“God’s Kingdom” also features stories dealing with racism, hunting, murder and romance while Kinneson comes of age in rustic, agricultural northern Vermont. The majority of those stories are rooted in the anecdotes that Mosher has voraciously devoured during his half-century of residency in the Northeast Kingdom, primarily in Irasburg. He has collected these stories talking to local farmers, teachers, kids, clergy and public officials, among others.
Book fodder has not been limited to Northeast Kingdom folks and his fertile imagination. Mosher grew up in upstate New York and spent a lot of his youth in the company of his grandparents, who operated a dairy farm around 25 miles north of Syracuse. He recalled how his grandparents lived in a decrepit, 26-room farmhouse that they shared with a bevy of relatives and the occasional hobo with no other place to live.
“We had no central heat, no electricity and no plumbing, but we sure had stories,” Mosher said with a smile.
The material mushroomed when Mosher and his wife, Phillis, moved to the Kingdom in 1964.
“I stumbled onto a goldmine of stories that no one had heard before, and I’ve been telling them ever since,” Mosher said.
The ubiquitous author believes he still has two or three books in him. One of them, he said, will be a more complete history of Pliny Templeton. Another will explore, more deeply, the roots of the Kinneson family.
“It was a very fun book to write,” Mosher said of “God’s Kingdom.”
Mosher is scheduled to talk about his new book on Tuesday, Nov. 17, from 7 to 9 p.m., at the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].