The Fall of the Year

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Overview

The rugged and mysterious mountains of Kingdom County are the setting for Howard Frank Mosher's brilliant new autobiographical novel, The Fall of the Year. Like Mosher's acclaimed earlier novels, The Fall of the Year celebrates the fiercely independent people of Kingdom Common, including such memorable new characters as Foster Boy Dufresne, the local bottle picker and metaphysical savant; the incomparably strange clairvoyant and matchmaker, Louvia the Fortuneteller; Dr. Sam E. Rong, a wayfaring Chinese herbalist ...

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Overview

The rugged and mysterious mountains of Kingdom County are the setting for Howard Frank Mosher's brilliant new autobiographical novel, The Fall of the Year. Like Mosher's acclaimed earlier novels, The Fall of the Year celebrates the fiercely independent people of Kingdom Common, including such memorable new characters as Foster Boy Dufresne, the local bottle picker and metaphysical savant; the incomparably strange clairvoyant and matchmaker, Louvia the Fortuneteller; Dr. Sam E. Rong, a wayfaring Chinese herbalist and connoisseur of human nature; the itinerant vaudevillian mind reader, Mr. Moriarity Mentality, who uses his unusual powers to teach the town fathers a lesson they will never forget; and the daredevil tomboy, Molly Murphy, who risks her life twice in a single day to fulfill her dream of running away with the Last Railway Extravaganza and Greatest Little Show on Earth. At the heart of The Fall of the Year are Kingdom County's baseball-playing, trout-fishing "unorthodox priest," Father George Lecoeur, his adopted son and protegé, Frank Bennett, and two interlocking love stories unlike any others in contemporary fiction. Written in Howard Frank Mosher's distinctively wry and ironical voice, with the straight-ahead narrative action that characterizes all his fiction, The Fall of the Year is a celebration of love in all its forms, from friendship to the most passionate romance, in a place where family, community, vocation, and the natural world still matter profoundly.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
An Uncommon Kingdom

In his new novel, The Fall of the Year, Harold Frank Mosher returns to Kingdom Common, an isolated and mysterious land on the border of Vermont and Canada. His young narrator, Frank Bennett, is also returning; newly graduated from the state university, he plans to spend the summer of 1999 in his hometown. Frank will prepare for Catholic seminary while staying with Father George, who adopted him when he was a child.

Father George is a man who preaches of the heavens while remaining very much in the world. An "unorthodox priest, the greatest scholar and third baseman in Kingdom Common," he is "always getting mad at God and then apologizing to Him." Aside from settling family quarrels and loaning money (earned in his whiskey-smuggling days, before his conversion) to the needy, the Father also works on his "Short History of Kingdom Common," an ever-expanding manuscript of several thousand pages.

The Fall of the Year can be understood as Frank Bennett's attempt to continue his adoptive father's task. The novel's chapters resemble pieces of history, meditations, eccentric character sketches. They could stand alone, yet serve, as a whole, to populate and characterize the landscape. In many ways, the novel resembles Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio; what's more, it doesn't suffer in the comparison. Here, we're treated to tales ranging from that of Foster Boy Dufresne—the Town Idiot Savant, who wins big at bingo and claims God should provide him "a young widow, all tanned from the Holy Land sunshine"—to that of Sylvie and Marie Bonhomme, sisters who disappeared with "a secret recipe known only to them, and once used to bake bread for the Last Supper."

After the sisters' disappearance, their memorial stones continue to fill the air with the smell of baking bread; this is remarkable, yet not completely surprising, for unusual happenings are familiar to Kingdom Common. This magical quality is best displayed in a chapter involving a traveling circus, and another describing a mind reader. The very nature of the town, it seems, threatens to outdo those who seek to amaze. "Mr. Mentality" is especially drained; he complains of "riprap"—insignificant details of past times that clutter his mind and leave him unable to remember names, or to follow simple directions. He's beset by forgetfulness, which, he admits, "when you're a mentalist by trade, is a crying shame."

Part of what mentalists and mountebanks must contend with is the landscape itself, caught in the richness of the novel's prose:

The roadside ditches...were pink and purple with wild lupines.... The new leaves on the hardwoods were still more yellow than green, and the sunlight fell through the foliage. Drifting down the trail...at intervals of about thirty seconds came a progression of brilliant yellow-and-black tiger swallowtail butterflies. The brook trout rose readily to whatever flies I tossed into the stream, splashing right up to my feet to get at them.
The world breathes and shifts; everywhere, in fact, the descriptive language surprises and provokes. A tattered evening gown is "mended by a safety pin as big as a bass plug"; a fire eater makes "a charred noise, like a burning log collapsing into its own coals."

Kingdom Common's citizens are also unpredictable. Chief among them is Louivia DeBanville, the fortune teller, whose cheeks are "rouged like an embalmed corpse's, with a compound she prepared herself from a vein of red hematite high on Little Quebec Mountain." She knows all of the town's secrets, and reveals them with the maximum amount of drama, usually to her own advantage. An avowed enemy of God, Louivia has an adversarial relationship with Father George that is hilarious, and defines them both; at times, it even seems to betray a heat beyond friendly respect.

Father George's manuscript (excerpted in chapter headings) readily admits that outsiders "have found Kingdom Common, at least at first, to be a hostile place." And if The Fall of the Year has a weakness, it may be found in its treatment of minority characters—not so much because they are mistreated by townspeople, but because their characterization veers so close to stereotype. The fascinating Dr. Sam Rong, for instance, is often reduced to delivering fortune-cookie wisdom, and speaking like Charlie Chan. ("Dress all up like funeral, sing sad song, listen fella in black nightgown talk talk talk, not say nothing. Church big fat bore.") Ed Handsome Lake, an Abenaki Indian, is introduced only to question "whether a man or government can own a wild mountain or lake."

Yet it's difficult to conceive of a book where a narrator's love for his fellow characters, and his world, is more palpable. That this sentiment never strays into sentimentality is due to Frank's good-natured humor, strong sense of wonder, and pure storytelling ability. His relationship with Father George is at the heart of his story; they are bound not by blood, but by deep affection and shared sensibility. As the old priest's health fails, Frank's plan to begin at the seminary becomes increasingly tentative. "The days when a priest could play ball, fish, and hunt are drawing to a close," Father George warns him. Furthermore, romances past and present complicate the plot, implicating both men and making the narrative fork and twist in a fashion only possible in Kingdom Common. In the end, Frank Bennett, "a connoisseur of strange people," is left to attempt connecting them all. The joy he passes on to his readers is ample evidence of his great success.

Peter Rock

Peter Rock is the author of the novels Carnival Wolves and This Is the Place. Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, he now lives in Philadelphia. His email address is rock@sfsu.edu.


About the Author

Howard Frank Mosher is the author of North Country: A Personal Journey Through the Badland and six novels, including A Stranger in the Kingdom (winner of the 1991 New England Book Award for fiction), Northern Borders, and Where the Rivers Flow North. He lives in Vermont.



From the Publisher
A usual cast of rural eccentrics peoples the latest from Vermont writer Mosher (Northern Borders, 1994, etc.), as he highlights a crucial summer for an orphan boy whos come home from college in the 1950s to prepare himself for the seminary. In little Kingdom Common, the heart of Kingdom County, young Frank Bennett sees that not much has changed while he was away, except that foul-mouthed, ballplaying Father George, the hotheaded priest who raised him, has lost much of his fire. A series of tasks the ailing priest has set out for Frank charts the course of the summer, starting with attempts to rein in the free-spirited village idiot,' who talks to his shadow, tries to kiss a moose on a bet, and finally vanishes from town in a blizzard. Frank's efforts meet with similar success when hes charged with overseeing a blithe young daredevil, a redheaded Irish girl excited to new heights by the arrival of a traveling circusshe upstages the acrobats on the flying trapeze and then runs off with the show. A darker side of life is reflected in Franks trip to Staten Island to visit the former owner of the Land of the Free Emporium, a Chinese man run out of town by those feeling the pinch of his entrepreneurial prosperity. And when an absent-minded Mr. Mentality comes to Kingdom Common to do a mind-reading show, his rage at not receiving his full fee translates into a terrifying public display of all the town's secrets. But the real story of the summer involves the local fortuneteller and a girl with laughing eyes who becomes Father George's housekeeper, and whose face Frank cannot put out of his mind. Capraesque storytelling bursting with juice and flavor, a novel as charming as it is colorful, even if it is at times a bit too predictable.—Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP.
All rights reserved. Kirkus Reviews

"Father George raised an adopted son, Frank Bennett, whose common-sensical point of view makes him an ideal narrator. Each exchange between the two is a small story in itself, in dialogue so right that you feel like you're eavesdropping on a small, special world." The New York Times

"Mosher's novel is filled with placid and elegant descriptions of nature, at times reminding me of a prose pastoral symphony. But people, not maple trees and trout streams alone, make a novel breathe, and this—his talent for creating lively, living characters—is Mosher's greatest gift. "—reviewed by Sudip Bose The Washington Post

"I have always enjoyed reading the novels of Howard Frank Mosher, and I was especially taken by The Fall of the Year, which brings together in one book all of his considerable strengths. His principal character, Father George Lecoeur, is easily among his most durable creations. Mosher's language—always a pleasure to read—attains a level of astonishing grace and beauty here as he brings Kingdom County to life once again. Mosher writes with a narrative power and moral intensity that recall John Steinbeck at his best, and it is high time he were ranked among the finest writers of our time."—Jay Parini, author of Robert Frost: A Life

"Few writers create characters as wondrous and idiosyncratic as Howard Frank Mosher—and fewer still offer us stories with as much grace and humor and heart. He is, pure and simple, one of the very best we have."—Chris Bohjalian, author of Midwives and The Law of Similars

"I have been a fan of Howard Frank Mosher since his astonishing Where the Rivers Flow North. He is a wonderful writer, and in the Fall of the Year he takes the gritty materials of Kingdom County and builds a novel of enchantment. The chapter called "The Daredevil" is one of the grandest set-pieces I have read in years.—Ward Just, author of A Dangerous Friend

"Howard Frank Mosher is, for my money, the most natural storyteller around, and any new book of his is cause for joyous celebration. The Fall of the Year, which is impossible to read without recalling the best tales of Washington Irving and Mark Twain, is no exception."—Richard Russo

"The Fall of the Year is a lyrical celebration of the natural world and the mysteries of human nature. As intelligent as it is generous, this is superb storytelling, a delightful novel filled with humor and grace, real people and miracles, love and loss."—Alice Hoffman, author of Here on Earth and Practical Magic

"I read The Fall of the Year by lantern light in a tent thirty miles from Cody, Wyoming, bbut I expect the effect would have been as magical as if I'd been home. As younggggg Frank Bennett peels the layers from the history of Kingdom Common, a place where the rivers flow north and the evening skyglow is either an illusion or the distant reflection of Montreal, we see the secrets of the human heart in his lost village, the ugly and beautiful truths which vex and redeem us. The interplay of village characters in the light and dark times of Frank's awakening make this a special book. Let me just say it: I love Howard Mosher's writing."—Ron Carlson, Author of The Hotel Eden and Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald

"Howard Frank Mosher continues to bring alive Kingdom County, Vermont, not just with a cast of endearing and entertaining people, but with such an eye for nature that the reader can hear maple leaves shiver in the wind, brook trout splash in a forest pool. But this time, he's thrown together the most wonderful mixture of ingredients: love, magic, mystery, humor and sadness, all simmering in the same book. Imagine what would happen if Grandma Moses and William Faulkner got together and invented a town."—Cathie Pelletier, author of Beaming Sonny Home, The Funeral Makers, and Once Upon a Time on the Banks

"A little bit of heaven can be found in the mountains of northern Vermont, a place populated by eccentrics, fortunetellers, small-minded civic functionaries and a man who just might be God. The village of Kingdom Common is the setting and centerpiece of Howard Frank Mosher's elegiac new novel, THE FALL OF THE YEAR." The Chicago Tribune

"You won't find Kingdom County on any official maps, but in his five previous novels Mosher created a literary landscape as textured as anything produced by the U.S. Geological Survey. A fine regional novelist who deserves wider recognition, Mosher writes stories, almost folk tales at times, built out of lost and forgotten history, rooted in a strong sense of place, inhabited with colorful characters. His terrain may be specific, but his themes are universal...in Mosher's hands, Kingdom County is full of all kinds of wonderments." USA Today

Robert Allen Papinchak
It's a very busy time for twenty-one-year-old Frank Bennett when he returns to the tiny Vermont village of Kingdom Common before beginning seminary studies. During one summer in the late 1950s, his whole life changes. While staying with his adoptive father, the ailing pastor George Lecoeur, "the greatest scholar and third baseman in the history of the county," Frank takes on various assignments to lessen Lecoeur's burdens. In the process, Frank learns some familiar lessons about life, loss and love.

Among his picaresque adventures, Frank takes the "town bottle picker and unofficial village idiot" trout fishing, travels with the local clairvoyant on a quest for a curative bread recipe, endures the irascible demands of an aspiring trapeze artist when the circus comes to town, and falls in love with a mysterious professional astrologer with "morning glory eyes."

These incidents are narrated in a series of episodic segments, some more successful than others. Mosher's vivid depiction of small-town life is superb. Weaker sections deal with standard family feuds or stereotypical ethnic characters. Mosher is best at slowly revealing Frank's personal dilemma in making choices about future commitments. Overall, this is sometimes a rollicking, boisterous novel, sometimes an incisive study of difficult choices and always an appealing on-target examination of the foibles of rural living.

Ward
I have been a fan of Howard Frank Mosher since his astonishing Where the Rivers Flow North. He is a wonderful writer, and in the Fall of the Year he takes the gritty materials of Kingdom County and builds a novel of enchantment. The chapter called "The Daredevil" is one of the grandest set-pieces I have read in years.
Richard Russo
Howard Frank Mosher is, for my money, the most natural storyteller around, and any new book of his is cause for joyous celebration.The Fall of the Year, which is impossible to read without recalling the best tales of Washington Irving and Mark Twain, is no exception."
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
His first novel in six years finds Mosher at his agile best, spinning a tale that richly melds vibrant character sketches and a palpable sense of place. Father George LeCoeur, "the unorthodox priest and greatest scholar and third baseman in the history of Kingdom Common," is the driving force of Mosher's novel, which takes place in his remote fictional village near Vermont's Canadian border. Father George is also the author of a 3000-page local history, small excerpts of which appear at the opening of each chapter. It is the priest's adopted son, Frank Bennett (now a prospective seminary student), who serves as narrator, telling stories about the locals whom Father George has asked him to aid in one way or another. As he recounts his experience with Kingdom Common's inhabitants, including feuding families, "outsiders," like Chinese Dr. Sam E. Rong and tailor Abel Feinstein, an idiot savant who's an irreverent biblical scholar, a red-headed teenage daredevil and a traveling magician and mind-reader, we come to know Frank much better than his father and mentor. But that is Mosher's intention. A beautiful young caretaker arrives from Montreal to tend to Father George in his decline and those close to him are mystified that the priest seems to have fallen in love. Indeed, he seems to turn his back on everything he lived for, leaving Frank puzzling--over his father and life in general--until the final revelations. A few early chapters lack the storytelling momentum that comes so easily to Mosher when he writes about conflict, be it family scuffles or the struggles of newcomers who try to make a life in Kingdom Common. But his spare folktale style, a wide spectrum of unforgettable minor characters and rich sense of story sustain this ultimately winning novel. Author tour. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
KLIATT
This new autobiographical novel by Mosher is a must for all public libraries and should be added to school collections where students need to be challenged. It would also be a great book to read for small-town character development. It opens with 21-year-old college graduate Frank Bennett returning to his Northern Vermont home to take a small break before entering the priesthood. Frank soon sees that not much has changed while he was away except maybe his adoptive parent, Father George Lecouer. Although Father George is 68 and still as ornery and hot-headed as ever, Frank thinks he has lost some spark. Soon after arriving Frank finds himself assigned to helping the many people of Kingdom Country, the first of whom is the local bottle picker and savant. In chapters that could stand alone, Moser tells a series of stories about the eccentric people of the county. But just when you think that you are reading an entire book of short stories, this gifted writer and natural storyteller pulls the chapters together for a most satisfying ending. For teens who like humor, or stories about real people, with a bit of mystery and romance, this will be the book to recommend. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1999, Houghton Mifflin/Mariner, 278p, 20cm, 99-28502, $13.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Jamie Lyn Weaver; YA Libn., Geneva P.L., Geneva, IL, March 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 2)
Library Journal
This warm, kind-hearted novel, set in the late 1950s, continues the series that Mosher has written about Kingdom County, a small rural community in northern Vermont. The real pleasures of this novel are to be found in the cast of colorful, often eccentric, and skillfully realized secondary characters that the young protagonist, Frank Bennett, encounters as he spends the summer at home after graduating from college, rethinking his plan to enter the seminary. Molly Murphy, for example, is a fiery, 17-year-old daredevil who is determined to join the circus and performs impromptu feats of skill and daring that astonish even the most experienced circus veterans. Other notable characters include Dr. Sam Rong, a wise and charmingly enigmatic Chinese immigrant, and Mr. Mentality, part flimflam man, part mysterious stranger, who reveals to the townspeople, in an episode reminiscent of Mark Twain's work, some of their darkest secrets. Recommended for libraries with large fiction collections.--Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community-Technical Coll., CT Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Boston Globe
What feels at first like a relaxed and rambling series of stories turns out to be a neatly plotted novel. [The] stories, told with naive charm, feature endearing and eccentric characters.
Washington Post
...in Howard Frank Mosher we have a novelist who not only knows every acre of his terrain -- the hills, streams and woods of northern Vermont -- he also has his eyes set on something loftier: the very mysteries of human existence. Mosher's novel is filled with placid and elegant descriptions of nature, at times reminding me of a prose pastoral symphony. But people, not maple trees and trout streams alone, make a novel breathe, and this -- his talent for creating lively, living characters -- is Mosher's greatest gift.
Kirkus Reviews
A usual cast of rural eccentrics peoples the latest from Vermont writer Mosher (Northern Borders, 1994, etc.), as he highlights a crucial summer for an orphan boy who's come home from college in the 1950s to prepare himself for the seminary. In little Kingdom Common, the heart of Kingdom County, young Frank Bennett sees that not much has changed while he was away, except that foul-mouthed, ballplaying Father George, the hotheaded priest who raised him, has lost much of his fire. A series of tasks the ailing priest has set out for Frank charts the course of the summer, starting with attempts to rein in the free-spirited "village idiot," who talks to his shadow, tries to kiss a moose on a bet, and finally vanishes from town in a blizzard. Frank's efforts meet with similar success when he's charged with overseeing a blithe young daredevil, a redheaded Irish girl excited to new heights by the arrival of a traveling circus—she upstages the acrobats on the flying trapeze and then runs off with the show. A darker side of life is reflected in Frank's trip to Staten Island to visit the former owner of the Land of the Free Emporium, a Chinese man run out of town by those feeling the pinch of his entrepreneurial prosperity. And when an absent-minded Mr. Mentality comes to Kingdom Common to do a mind-reading show, his rage at not receiving his full fee translates into a terrifying public display of all the town's secrets. But the real story of the summer involves the local fortuneteller and a girl with laughing eyes who becomes Father George's housekeeper, and whose face Frank cannot put out of his mind. Capraesque storytelling bursting with juice and flavor, a novel as charming as it iscolorful, even if it is at times a bit too predictable.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780395984161
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/28/1999
  • Edition description: None
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.89 (w) x 8.61 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

HOWARD FRANK MOSHER is the author of ten books, including Waiting for Teddy Williams, The True Account, and A Stranger in the Kingdom, which, along with Disappearances, was corecipient of the New England Book Award for fiction. He lives in Vermont.

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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 5 The Land of the Free

Outsiders-French Canadian farmers and mill workers, Irish railroadmen, even teachers and clergymen from Away-have often found Kingdom Common, at least at first, to be a hostile place.

-Father George, "A Short History"

Riding the rattler south through the midsummer night, I read the postcard once more. "Hello Frank Bennett. Send box from Chinese Bank behind bin right of door in Land of Free to 8247 Liberty St. Staten Island New York. I fine. How you? Yr. friend Dr. Sam E. Rong." The message was printed in small red letters precise as typescript. On the reverse was a glossy photograph of the Statue of Liberty at night, torch aglow, the multicolored skyline of Manhattan in the background.
As the eight-car Rattler crossed the height of land south of Kingdom Common and began to pick up a head of steam on the long downgrade toward St. Johnsbury, I wondered again why Sam wanted the rectangular lacquered teakwood box, somewhat larger than a shoebox, full of envelopes with postmarks from Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Singapore, and a score of other North American and Asian cities. Why, if it was important to him, would he have left the box behind in the first place? Two days before, right after the card arrived, I'd gotten the key to the padlocked front door of the Land of the Free Emporium from Bumper Stevens and dug the box out from behind the bin by the door. When I'd opened it, it had given off a sharp herbal aroma that I recognized immediately. And at exactly that moment I decided to make the trip from northern Vermont to Staten Island to see my old friend Sam Rong in person.

It had been eight years, but I still remembered the evening vividly. I was just thirteen at the time, and a gang of us town kids were playing a pickup ball game on the common. I happened to glance over at Bumper Stevens, sitting on his three-legged milking stool behind the backstop and calling balls and strikes, and noticed a slender, dark-haired stranger standing nearby in white pants and a white jacket, his arms folded, frowning out at the diamond. He was the first Chinese person I'd ever seen in the Common, but what surprised me even more was my absolute certainty that a moment earlier the man hadn't been there. It was as though the frowning newcomer dressed in white had simply fallen out of the sky onto the village green. Or perhaps materialized, like a genie from a fairy tale, out of the faint blue haze of Bumper's cigar smoke.
"Yes, sir," Bumper said by way of greeting.
"What game?" the Chinese man said abruptly in a disapproving voice.
"That would be baseball," the auctioneer said. "Basey-bally. The great American pastime." "It figures," the man in white said.
Bumper looked at him sharply. But the stranger's face was as expressionless as the pale moon just coming up behind the courthouse tower across the street.
"You no pray basey-bally in Chiny?" Bumper said, not unamicably.
The man in the white pants and jacket gave him a pitying look. "That's the silliest game Dr. Sam E. Rong's ever seen," he said. "Smack ball with stick, run like hell to get back where starting. What jobs you got this burg?" That made Bumper laugh out loud, so on the spot he asked Dr. Sam E. Rong to dinner at the hotel. The next time I saw the Chinese man was the following Tuesday evening at Bumper's weekly cattle auction, where he seemed to be very capably doing several jobs at once: parking farm trucks, selling coffee and hot dogs, brandishing a blue cow cane, and herding doomed Jerseys, Holsteins, and Guernseys from failed local dairy farms into the makeshift wooden ring inside the commission-sales barn, all the while bantering with the auctioneer a mile a minute, giving back everything he got, with interest.
"Chinka chinka Chinaman, settin' on a fence, tryin' to make a dollar out of fifteen cents," Bumper chanted into his microphone between herds. "Fifteen cents, fifteen cents, who'll start off the bidding on this sorry-looking Chinaman in the white coat for fifteen cents?" "Ha," Sam replied from atop the high board enclosure of the auction ring, coolly surveying Bumper and the crowd. "Red nose auctioneer too old too fat too full cheap beer to sit on fence at all." "Chop chop chop! Wrastle that next bunch of critters in here pronto," Bumper roared into the mike over the general laughter.
"Chop chop yourself," Sam said in a plainly audible voice as he jumped lightly off the fence into the sawdust and opened the gate. "Sam E. Rong's the only fella does anything chop chop round this joint. Bump Steve ever try too move chop chop, have thundering big brain stroke, wind up six feet under Celestial Kingdom. Then Dr. Rong run auction, things round here get done right for change." Soon Sam was holding his own iiiiin Bumper's after-hours poker games, too. For the first several weeks he'd watched the players, gone to the cooler at his own unhurried pace to fetch them beer, and conducted a constant running repartee with Bumper. Then Sam began to sit in, keeping track of his winnings on a tall red abacus with green wooden rings. Of course the abacus amused the auctioneer and his cronies, who continued to laugh and shake their heads the following spring when Sam used part of his poker winnings to buy the disused feed store on the edge of Little Quebec and opened the Land of the Free Emporium.
"Chinka chinka Chinaman," I yelled out as I raced past Sam's place that summer. "Settin' on a fence!" "Boy!" he called back sharply. "Snooping young neighborhood boy, always round where not supposed to be. Why you scared of Sam?" "I'm not scared of you," I yelled back from a safe distance.
"Are too. You scared because you very, very ignorant. Tell what. Make self useful, you going to spy on Dr. Rong every waking minute anyway. Run home for twenty-two rifle, hurry back. Got job for you to do." I ran home with no intention of doing what he had asked, for I was frightened half to death by Sam, as well as fascinated by him. But when I got home, Father George, who'd overheard my taunts, ordered me in no uncertain terms to get the hell down to Sam's with my .22 before he horsewhipped me all the way back there himself.
"I-I don't want to." "You don't want to! Of course you don't want to. You're ashamed. I would be, too, if I were you. You goddamn well ought to be ashamed." "I don't like the way he looks at me." "What you mean is, you're scared of him because he's different. Well, Frank, I guarantee that Sam Rong won't hurt you. But you are by God going to help him out, starting this afternoon, or I will know the reason why." Which was how, the summer I turned fourteen, I went to work for Sam Rong, waging war on the colony of rats that had taken up residence in the abandoned feed store. When the rats were gone, I swept out the old wooden bins and helped Sam paint the exterior of the store red, yellow, and green. Over the summer he added swooping eaves and a pointed cupola. After the renovations were complete, the store resembled a jerry-built pagoda. A pagoda on the edge of a French Canadian enclave in a northern Vermont village!
"Ha," Sam exclaimed, delighted by the irony, as he painted "The Land of the Free Emporium, Dr. Sam E. Rong Prop" in shiny black letters over the entrance. On the inside walls of the store, on a sixty-foot-long scroll of blank newsprint that Editor Kinneson gave him, Sam began drawing a pen-and-ink representation of market day in a Ming dynasty village. The town, which had a rectangular central green and bore just enough resemblance to Kingdom Common to make me hope Sam might be parodying our village, was crowded with merchants, fishermen, barterers, wrestlers, musicians, bricklayers, carpenters, revelers, storytellers, aristocrats in sedan chairs, hunters, warriors, potters, silversmiths, and children. A fat cattle drover with a long goad looked suspiciously like an Oriental Bumper Stevens. A sharp-featured woman haggling over a turnip resembled Louvia the Fortuneteller.
Here and there on his tableau, as the spirit moved him, Sam inscribed proverbs of his own composition in red ink.
"You, Frank Bennett. Listen. This says, all the time a fella spends fishing can add on to life at the far end. That's how much older he'll live to be. You like to fish? Come here early tomorrow morning." The following day Sam showed me how to set wire traps for northern river eels in the Kingdom River under the Irishtown railway trestle. That evening he fried up a tasty meal of moo gew eel kew in a wok made out of a discarded hubcap from a 1936 GM farm truck. Sam nodded at the fishing proverb on the scroll. "See?" he said. "Add two, three hour spent catching eel today on to other end of our lives. Other words, Frank Bennett, more you fish, longer you live. Very wise proverb, eh? I pay you in wisdom. Better than cash." At fourteen, I was skeptical about this proposition. But I liked Sam Rong from the start, and soon we became good friends.
Before it was a feed store, the building had been a tenement for French Canadian mill workers. Sam took up living quarters in the rear, in an enclosed porch overhanging the river. He heated the store with a coal-burning Glenwood parlor stove that he bought from Bumper Stevens at a farm auction in Lord Hollow. Besides cattle feed, which Sam purchased in bulk from grain cars coming in from the Canadian West, he sold garden seeds, horse liniment, and his own brand of bag balm, good not only for sore cow udders but, as Dr. Rong liked to say, for whatever ailed you, including cuts and bruises, arthritis, hemorrhoids, even infant teething. He stocked a few staple grocery items like rice and noodles. From Hong Kong he imported a line of durable, inexpensive work shoes. He sold fifty different kinds of homemade medicines compounded from pennyroyal, mint, wild ginger, gill over the ground, goldenthread roots, sarsaparilla, and dozens of other plants that he foraged for in the woods and meadows outside the village. On raised beds on a sunny patch of riverbank below his jutting living quarters he grew several varieties of exotic vegetables to sell to adventurous Commoners, including bok choy, Chinese celery, and a savory pale green pole bean stippled as red as a brook trout's sides. He added a line of used books, representing every branch of learning from homeopathy to classical literature.
Two or three evenings a week, while Sam balanced his accounts in a tall black register book with bright green Chinese characters on the cover, he had me read aloud to him from an 1860 pirated American edition of Dickens, with illustrations by Boz. Sam's all-time favorite was David Copperfield. Uriah Heep and Mr. Micawber delighted him so much that he copied Boz's depictions of them onto the wall scroll. And he personally appropriated Joe Gargery's line from Great Expectations, barking out at me, with ironical satisfaction, at the end of each of our reading sessions, "Ever the best of friends, eh, Frank Bennett?" "How about I brew up some friendship tea," Sam said one evening. "We drink in evening, read Mr. Charles Dickens. First you tell me. Where butternut trees grow round Celestial Kingdom?" "Butternut trees? There're a few north of town. Out along the river past the trestle." "No, no. I know all about those. Too wet there. Where butternut trees grow in forest? Also maybe basswood. Where butternut and basswood grow in forest of Celestial Kingdom? There we find friendship root." I told Dr. Rong that I'd noticed a few old butternut trees on the edge of a clear-cut on Little Quebec Mountain above Louvia's place. I thought I remembered seeing a stand of basswood nearby, too.
"Good. What doing this Sunday morning?" I shrugged. "Mass with Father George in the morning, I guess." "Ha. Church. Dress all up like funeral, sing sad song, listen fella in black nightgown talk talk talk, not say nothing. Church big fat bore, Frank Bennett. Second great American pastime. No further ahead at the end of church than at beginning. Behind in fact." "How do you figure that, Sam?" "Call Dr. Rong, not Sam. Use respect. Okay. Jungle ring jingle. Along comes church money basket on long handle. I know, I go to church one time. Afterward, I tell fella in nightgown, next time he pay me go church, not other way round. What you ever learn in church, Frank Bennett? Quick, name one thing." I could not. Everything important that Father George had taught me, it seemed, he had taught me outside of church.
Sam made a noise in his throat, unknown in English and only distantly related to a laugh. "This Sunday morning, Frank. You forget all about church. Come to forest with Dr. Rong for friendship root. Maybe you'll learn something there. Doubt it."

"Why you never bring me this good place before, Frank Bennett? Look at all treasure we find already. Yellow coltfoot, fine for Sovereign Cough Elixer. Watercress leaf, infuse in Celestial Fever Reducing Beverage. Here, by brook. Look! Cattail slime, good cure for running sore on elbow ankle. Not even come to butternut trees yet, already strike big bonanza." As we continued along the old logging trace beside Little Quebec Brook, the pealing of church bells came floating up through the spring woods from the village far below. An idea occurred to me, one I hoped to impress Sam with. "Dr. Rong? Somewhere I read that nature is God's true cathedral. You know, out here in the woods?" Sam gave me his pitying look. "How very foolish. Sounds like Sunday School talk, Frank. Stop and think. Here in forest, every beast eats every other beast. Fox eats bird eats bug eats Dr. Rong's medicinal plant. Law of wild." I laughed.
"Not funny. Whether you know or not, you part of too. Say you're out in woods, too busy being big philosopher watch where going. Whoop daisy! Catch shoe, trip over hobblebush, fall down, knock daydreaming head on granite ledge. Hungry beasts of forest come flocking to eat you up. Soon only white bones left. Fall comes, cover with yellow leaf, goodbye Frank Bennett. Very pleasant cathedral. Now. Where butternut trees? Where basswoods? Get show on road here."

High on the mountainside, half a dozen sparsely limbed butternut trees had been left untouched by the loggers.
"Now look close on ground, Frank. Find tall proud plant, shy green flower in middle, three big pointy leaf. Here, see? And here. Five teeth on leaf. Friendship root. Jin-chen!" "Jin-chen?" "What else? Jin-chen. Ginseng. In fall, when Celestial Kingdom turns bright colors like Emporium, you and Sam Rong slip out here some Sunday morning when everybody else cooped up in church feeling sorry for self, telling Mr. Jesus how hard they got it. Dig jin-chen root. Keep a few for friendship tea. Sell the rest to Hong Kong for big money. You got something against money?" "How much money, Dr. Rong?" Sam frowned. He looked around the clearing. "Maybe hundred dollars' worth of ginseng here. We take one of three roots. Leave two of three to grow. You help dig, I give ten percent. Quick, how much that?" "About-three dollars?" "Yes. You right for once." "What's ginseng good for? Besides tea?" From his jacket pocket Sam removed a shard of china pottery with a purple peacock painted on it. He knelt and dug with the shard around the base of a ginseng plant, lifted it partway out of the ground, and shook off the damp black woodsy humus. "See where root fork like trouser leg? Some Chinese think jin- chen root shaped like a man, Frank. Think man-shape root makes very potent, have many son. You ask Dr. Rong, that nonsense. Like great American pastimes, church and baseball." He broke off a small piece of the root and replanted the rest. "Makes good tea for friends to drink in evening. Otherwise, okay for upset stomach, I guess. Don't make any worse, at least." "Maybe it's mind over matter." "Maybe. I not put much stock in mind over matter." "Dr. Rong, if you don't believe in mind over matter or in going to church or in nature being God's cathedral, what do you believe in? You must believe in something." "Sure believe in something. Believe in two somethings. Believe in golden rule, do unto others. And believe young Frank Bennett ask too many questions. Don't need church for do unto others. Far as questions go, read this." Out of his white doctor's coat Sam whipped a pencil stub, with which he scrawled three Chinese characters on the trunk of one of the butternut trees. "What, can't read? Okay, I read to you. Says, Ask less, listen more.' Don't forget. Now I ask you a question. Where this old road go?" Sam pointed across the clearing, where the ancient lumbering road we'd walked up from the village continued north, almost indistinguishable in the raspberry brakes and saplings.
"It goes to Canada if you keep following it." "Pretty big woods whole way?" I nodded.
"How fella know when in Canada?" "You don't really. Father George told me there used to be a cleared strip through the trees to mark the border. That was years ago. When he and I were up there deer hunting last fall, it was all grown up to brush." Dr. Rong nodded. Then abruptly he headed back down the trail toward the village.

"Eat less!" Dr. Rong shouted at Bumper Stevens. The auctioneer was sitting in a straight-backed kitchen chair with a red-striped sheet around him while Sam cut his hair and lectured him.
"Read proverb on scroll," Sam said, jabbing with his shears in the direction of a new set of characters on his ever-enlarging tableau. "Proverb say, Less you eat, better you feel.' Too much rare roast beef in hotel, too much beer, too much sitting round on foolish green milking stool holding court for hooligan sidekicks. Don't take better care of self, you die, Sam have to drop everything, make extra large coffin." The Land of the Free Emporium had been open for several months now, and Sam was doing a brisk business, with a finger in every pie in town, as Bumper himself had put it. Besides cutting hair for a quarter a head, Sam was in fact retailing coffins, which he fashioned from knotty planks rejected by the American Heritage furniture mill and sold at half the price of a factory-made casket. For a nominal fee Sam would yank out an abscessed tooth, set a broken wrist, doctor a sick horse or cow. Wednesday evenings he turned the Emporium into a gymnasium and taught judo to us high school boys. For the women of the village he conducted a course in homeopathic medicine and another in Chinese cooking. "Don't stuff men with beefsteak, Aroostook County potatoes," he harangued them as he stirred his famous moo gew eel kew in the hubcap wok. "They get used to nice lean river eel on rice, like fine. They not like, tell do own cooking, see how they like that." What amazed the Common was that Sam's nostrums actually seemed to work. Doc Harrison told Father George and Judge Allen over their regular six a.m. coffee at the hotel that Sam Rong was bidding fair to clear his slate of hypochondriacs. Not only was the Chinese doctor's advice medically sound, villagers seemed to go to him, as they did to Louvia the Fortuneteller, to hear the truth about themselves. Despite Sam's reservations about church, he and Father George soon became fast friends. As for Louvia, when her herbal clients from Little Quebec first started to consult Sam for a second opinion, she was consumed by professional jealousy. She flew down off her hill to the Emporium to threaten him with a quadruple hex if he didn't leave town immediately, then wound up staying for the better part of the afternoon to exchange remedies. She went back to visit Sam so often that it was rumored the two were having a fling. Some Commoners doubted this, others swore to it, but no one really knew. In the village in those days, nearly anything was possible.

"How you like stamp collection, Frank Bennett? From all over land of free and far beyond. Every week you get mail with stamps from New York, San Fran, L of A, Hong Kong too, maybe." It was a Sunday morning in October. Sam and I had been digging ginseng in the clear-cut high on the ridge for about an hour, selecting only the largest plants and only about half of those, when out of the blue Sam asked me about the stamp collection.
"That sounds like a lot of pen pals, Dr. Rong." "No pals. You get mail in box at post office. Bring all letters to Sam Rong at Emporium. Sam correspond with pals. You just keep stamps. Don't pick jin-chen so close together, Frank. What I tell you? You be good to jin-chen, jin-chen be good to you." For emphasis, Sam waved the shard of china with the painted peacock that he used as a digging tool. "You all set now, start collecting stamps. Later today I give you cash rent post box. This enough jin-chen for now. Hope nobody else horns in on patch, eh?" "Who'd even know what to look for? Much less where to look?" "You be surprised who. What Sam tell you many times already? Hope for best, expect worst.' That way you ready for anything. Now you ready start collect stamps." Which is how I became an amateur philatelist. Several times a week after school I stopped by the post office and picked up a letter or two or three and delivered them to the Land of the Free Emporium. Sam steamed off the stamps with the same chipped blue enamel kettle he used to boil water for his ginseng- root friendship tea, which we drank in the evening while I read aloud to him from Bleak House, Oliver Twist, or A Christmas Carol. Some of the stamps were from U.S. and Canadian cities. Others, as bright as butterflies, bore postmarks from Singapore, Borneo, even Australia. The envelopes and letters Sam stowed in the aromatic teakwood box that he referred to as his Chinese bank and kept hidden behind the buckwheat bin to the right of the Emporium's door.
At one of Bumper's farm auctions, Sam bought a Model A Ford in good running order. He equipped it with tire chains and a front-end winch and began driving out from the Common on all-night expeditions once or twice a month. That same fall a succession of Chinese helpers appeared at the Land of the Free. Most of these assistants were young men who stayed only a few days. Occasionally an entire family showed up at the Emporium. Soon it was apparent that Sam was using his store as a way station for aliens being smuggled into the country. One morning when Sam was stocking his shelves, Bumper lettered "The Orient Express" on the driver's-side door of the Model A. Everyone in town, including Sam, had a good laugh.
As for the letters tucked away in the Chinese bank, I suspected that they contained money, sent on some kind of pre- arranged payment plan by Sam's clients. Sam never said, though, any more than he said where he'd come from himself. He remained as much a mystery as the day he appeared in our village.

Over the course of the next year Sam's wares and services continued to expand. From Minnesota seed stock he grew wild rice in the hidden backwaters of the Kingdom River beyond the railroad trestle north of town. Early in the fall, a week before Sam and I picked ginseng, we paddled a canoe out to the rice beds and bent the long wavy stalks over the gunwales and whacked off the ripe kernels with short sticks. Sam sold the wild rice by the pound, unhusked. From it he also made a delicious penny candy, which he scooped out of an old molasses barrel for the kids of the village, who flocked to the Emporium after school to see, on his famous scroll, drawings of undutiful children being swooped off by winged dragons and warlocks with tongs for fingernails. Out of another barrel he sold miscellaneous souvenirs, including a hideous squat green replica of the Statue of Liberty, made in Hong Kong. Inscribed on its plastic base was the legend "Send me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." To a select group of regular customers Sam extended personal and business loans at half the interest rates of the First Farmers' and Lumberers' Bank. At no interest at all he loaned young people money to go to college or get married or make a down payment on a first home. He insisted only that they pay something on their accounts each month, even just a few dollars if that's all they could afford; he kept track of these transactions in the tall black register book. Day and night he dished out blunt observations, shrewd advice, and witty proverbs to everyone who set foot in the Emporium, chuckling to himself over the incongruity of a Chinese wayfarer from no one knew where dispensing wisdom and irony in the wilds of northern Vermont, the Celestial Kingdom, the far end of the civilized world.

One chilly fall evening when Sam and I were drinking friendship tea and laughing over Mr. Micawber's latest sojourn to debtor's prison, an elderly farm woman in a man's slouch hat, a long denim barn coat, and rubber barn boots appeared at the Land of the Free. It was Mattie Kittredge from Lost Nation Hollow. Mattie's husband, John, had died recently. With her was Bumper Stevens, whose cigar smoke tonight was redolent not of thick stacks of well- thumbed hundred-dollar bills, or the selling off of family farms, or crude, sardonic humor and shady dealings, but of something like concern.
"I know my husband ran up a great long feed slip with you," Mattie told Sam. "I came to inform you that I can't make good on it until Mr. Stevens sells off my cows. Until the auction next month I don't have no cash money at all, only just what I need to get by on." "You wait," Sam said. He opened his black account book to the page with John Kittredge's name at the top. Clicking his tongue mathematically, he did some rapid calculations on his abacus. He nodded to himself, reached into the souvenir barrel by the counter, and pulled out a rose-colored penknife shaped like a fish with the violet letters "U. S. of A." stamped on it. Sam opened the knife, cut John's page neatly out of the account book, crumpled it into a small ball, put it into his mouth, and swallowed it.
"You owe nothing," he said. "Very sorry to hear about John." Mattie stared at him.
Sam shrugged. "Not that much anyway. John made whopping big payment couple weeks ago. Cleaned up all except few dollars." Mattie started to object, but Bumper stepped forward out of a cloud of relieved cigar smoke. "Well, then, Dr. Samuel. We thank you kindly and I'll get Mattie here back on out to the Hollow." "I am obliged to you," Mattie told Sam quietly as Bumper steered her toward the door. Then she stopped. "They say you-they say sometimes you tell folks comforting things. Like a preacher, only better. Would you tell me something?" "Oh, sure," Sam said from atop his tall stool behind the counter. "You and John have son?" "Sons? Yes. We have four sons. And three daughters." "All son and daughter alive and well?" "They be. Thank the Lord." "Good. Got grandson?" Mattie smiled. "Nine. And six granddaughters. One great-granddaughter." "Good. Great-granddaughter very good. Now you watch." Sam hopped down from his stool. He got out his fine-tip drawing pen and an inkwell. Under a funeral procession on the wall tableau he carefully inscribed several intricate red characters. "What say?" he demanded.
Mattie shrugged. "What does it say?" "Say very good news, very comforting." Sam returned to his stool and reached again for his abacus. He dropped one green ring down the slender red pole. "Grandfather die," he said. He dropped another ring onto the abacus. "Father die." Adding a third ring, he said cheerfully, "Son die. Proverb say, Grandfather die, father die, son die.'" "By the Jesus, now," Bumper muttered. "What the-?" Mattie frowned. "The grandfather dies, the father dies, the son dies. That would be comforting to an old woman who has just lost her husband of fifty-two years?" "Oh sure, most comforting," Sam said. "What other order you want them to die in? Other proverb say, Old must die, young may.' You and John most fortunate, eh? No young die in family yet." For perhaps five full seconds, Mattie Kittredge looked at Sam, who looked back at her, his eyes as humorous and wise as those of the snapping turtles he kept for soup in the watering trough in front of the Emporium. Then she nodded once, and headed out the door with Bumper.
For his part, Dr. Rong never seemed to look any older. No one had the slightest idea how old Sam was. He could have been forty, he might have been sixty. It was rumored that he had a large family in Mandalay, a beautiful occidental mistress in Toronto, a string of high-toned whorehouses in Vancouver and Mexico City. But no one knew. When it came to Sam E. Rong, everything was speculation.

Copyright (c) 1999 by Howard Frank Mosher. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 25, 2006

    Good Read

    I enjoyed reading this book. The book is portioned into sections about various characters and happenings in the small town. The characters were very delightful as they were introduced. I especially enjoyed the Chinese doctor! The ending was a bit disappointing, but by then, the book had already done it's work. I don't really mind the ending, the strength lies in it's characters and happenings.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2000

    mosher is delightful

    The Fall of the Year was pure pleasure and enjoyment. Mosher spins a yarn of small town trials and tribulations of rural life in northern Vermont. He has an obvious love for nature and the outdoors and this novel has Mosher's fluid desciptve prose of the beauty of the North Kingdom. This is skillfully woven amongst a cast of colorful local characters, a wacky plot that contains a mystery and a love story, and a tone of humor that makes for an overall heartwarming and delightful read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 13, 2000

    A good way to fill an otherwise empty afternoon

    This is my first read of anything by Howard Frank Mosher. He appears to be an extremely capable writer, for he had me turning pages as quickly as I could. Unfortunately, those pages were being turned in my vain hope of finding a common thread through what essentially was several disjointed character studies. I found the plot to be water-thin and, in the last three chapters, frighteningly predictable. The characters themselves were sympathetically painted, as was the Vermont backdrop; no one can say Mosher doesn't have an excellent eye and ear for landscape and dialogue. The book would have made a far better collection of short stories. Regardless, it was an entertaining afternoon spent reading the book, albeit somewhat disappointing by the time it came time to close its covers.

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