The Great Northern Express: A Writer's Journey Home

The Great Northern Express: A Writer's Journey Home

3.6 6
by Howard Frank Mosher

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From bestselling, nationally celebrated author Howard Frank Mosher, a wildly funny and deeply personal account of his three-month, 20,000-mile sojourn to discover what he loved enough to live for.
Several months before novelist Howard Frank Mosher turned sixty-five, he learned that he had prostate cancer. Following forty-six intensive radiation treatments… See more details below


From bestselling, nationally celebrated author Howard Frank Mosher, a wildly funny and deeply personal account of his three-month, 20,000-mile sojourn to discover what he loved enough to live for.
Several months before novelist Howard Frank Mosher turned sixty-five, he learned that he had prostate cancer. Following forty-six intensive radiation treatments, Mosher set out alone in his twenty-year-old Chevy Celebrity on a monumental road trip and book tour across twenty-first-century America. From a chance meeting with an angry moose in northern New England to late-night walks on the wildest sides of America's largest cities, The Great Northern Express chronicles Mosher's escapades with an astonishing array of erudite bibliophiles, homeless hitchhikers, country crooners and strippers, and aspiring writers of all circumstances.
     Full of high and low comedy and rollicking adventures, this is part travel memoir, part autobiography, and pure, anarchic fun. From coast to coast and border to border, this unforgettable adventure of a top-notch American writer demonstrates that, sometimes, in order to know who we truly are, we must turn the wheel towards home.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Just before he turned 65, acclaimed novelist Mosher (Walking to Gatlinburg) learned that he had prostate cancer. During the course of his radiation therapy, he decides to embark on a cross-country road trip that he and his long-deceased uncle had once dreamed of taking. A week after his final radiation treatment, which coincides with the publication of his new novel, Mosher sets out on the Great American Book Tour in his 20-year-old Chevy Celebrity (the Loser Cruiser), which has 280,000 miles on the odometer, stopping at America’s great independent bookstores in cities both large and small. Mosher colorfully weaves stories about his teaching in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont with his misadventures in the Loser Cruiser, cheap hotels, and at readings and book signings to create a brilliantly vibrant quilt that covers us with his warmth, humor, and love of discovery, reading, and writing. In 65 short installments, Mosher regales us with rollicking tales of his encounter with an angry mother moose in a motel parking lot, the high school principal (the Prof) he worked for who measured his days in quarts of beer (a two-quart day was a bad one), and his conversion to cross-country skiing. Mosher admits that there’s no place he’d rather hang out than a bookstore or a library, and he affectionately introduces us to some of America’s greatest bookstores, including Square Books in Oxford, Miss.; the Tattered Cover in Denver; and Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., among others. With vivacious humor, Mosher carries readers along on this adventure that offers him a chance to gain a fresh perspective on what he loves enough to live for. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
Praise for The Great Northern Express

Like Howard Frank Mosher, I am a novelist and a cancer survivor, and I live in northern New England.  The journey Mr. Mosher describes is very familiar to me—made more poignant by the faultless details and inimitable characters the author encounters on his odyssey of self-discovery.  Mosher has always been a gifted storyteller; this time, there is an added euphoria in his storytelling—borne by the hope he and I share: for now, we have dodged a bullet that thirty thousand American men don’t dodge every year.”
—John Irving

"Mosher colorfully weaves create a brilliantly vibrant quilt that covers us with his warmth, humor, and love of discovery, reading, and writing."
Publishers Weekly (starred review) 

"Whimsical....Mosher provides a genial reminder that adventures are possible at any age."
Kirkus Reviews

“Hilarious, poignant, and honest, this bittersweet memoir is a sheer delight to read.”
Kirkus Reviews
An acclaimed novelist's cross-country, "Great American Book Tour," woven with quaint recollections of teaching in northern Vermont as well as enthusiasm for trout fishing. Following radiation treatment for cancer, the then-65-year-old Mosher (Walking to Gatlinburg, 2010, etc.) embarked on a road trip inspired by a childhood promise that also coincided with the publication of a new novel. Forays in cities included stops at notable independent bookshops, from Prairie Lights to Powell's; near-escapes with wildlife; anecdotal encounters with Oliver Sacks as well as Harry Potter fans; musings on landscapes; and conversations with locals characterized by humorous, occasionally larger-than-life traits. In three sections ("Faith," "Hope" and "Love"), Mosher threads the uncertainty of his pre-novelist days with the foibles of now being an accomplished yet realistic, humble author. Rather than presenting a linear career story, he refreshingly alternates chapters between past and present. With equal aplomb, Mosher also looks back at challenges such as moving a piano, raucous motel patrons, rest-stop brawlers, limited audiences that included only the staff that organized the event and being mistaken for homeless. He also skillfully highlights memories that emphasize neighborly relationships. Chapters on Vermont are noteworthy for the recurrent theme of discovering simpler pleasures and searching for stories amid colorful lives. Fleeting conversations with imaginary characters may strike some readers as overly whimsical, and the digressive story about an inheritance is distracting. Still, Mosher provides a genial reminder that adventures are possible at any age. One man's appreciation for curious experiences, portrayed with self-effacing wit; best suited for fans of the author's work.

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The Trip Not Taken

My first home was a ghost town. Hidden away in a remote hollow of the Catskill Mountains, the company-­owned hamlet of Chichester went bankrupt in 1939, three years before I was born. A few families, ours included, hung on for several more years. But without its once-­prosperous furniture factory, which reopened a couple of times in my early boyhood only to shut down a few months later, Chichester was just another dying upstate mill town. By the time I turned five, the place was on its last legs, and looked it.

While many of my happiest memories date from those years in the Catskills—­I caught my first trout in the stream behind our house when I was four, shagged foul balls for older kids at the overgrown diamond on the village green—­from the fall when I entered first grade until my first year of high school, my family moved, by my count, ten times. My dad, a schoolteacher, had itchy feet, like Pa Ingalls in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. After leaving Chichester, we Moshers would strike out for new territory every year or so. And although I never wanted to leave any of the towns where we temporarily alighted, I don’t recall thinking there was anything unusual about pulling up stakes at the end of every school year and relocating. In those days I was a ballplaying, daydreaming, reading little guy with a slew of imaginary companions, mostly from the books I devoured—­Huck Finn, Treasure Island’s Jim Hawkins, David Copperfield. So long as our family stayed together and I could find a nearby trout brook, a ball field, and a steady supply of books to read, I didn’t care how often we moved.

Still, I have always regarded Chichester as my hometown. If asked for a favorite early memory, I’d recall sitting between my dad and Reg Bennett in the front seat of Dad’s old, battleship-­gray DeSoto on the mountaintop behind our house, trying to dial in the Yankees–­Red Sox game on the car radio. As the house lights of the town below began to wink on in the twilight, and Mel Allen or Curt Gowdy waxed poetic about the Bronx Bombers or the boys from Beantown, Reg and Dad would talk baseball. Reg—­my father’s best friend, fishing partner, and teaching colleague—­was a second father and honorary uncle to me. In temperament, Dad and Reg were as different from each other as lifelong friends can be. My father was a big, outgoing, nonjudgmental man, comfortable with himself and others. A natural leader, he caught for the Chichester town baseball team, as he had for his high school nine. Reg was slighter in build and was several inches shorter. He was combative and, if wronged, quick to pick a fight. He pitched for the Chichester team. Over the years he had perfected a hard-­breaking curve, which he could and frequently did use to brush aggressive hitters back from the plate or knock them down. Like my grandfather Mosher, my father had a romantic outlook on life, which I have inherited. Reg, for his part, was a realist, with an ironical turn of mind and a dry sense of humor that I loved.

Reg loved to argue. My father did not. Sooner or later, though, Dad would be drawn into a debate, amicable enough at first, often over the relative merits of their two favorite players. Dad, a true-­blue Yankee fan, was a Joe DiMaggio man. Reg was a devotee of Ted Williams. As the evening wore on and the game became heated—­as Yankee–­Red Sox games are wont to do—­the baseball arguments between my father and uncle intensified. Soon they’d both get mad, stop addressing each other directly, and begin arguing by proxy, through me.

“Howard Frank,” my uncle said—­as a boy, I was often addressed by both names to distinguish me from my father, Howard Hudson—­“Howard Frank, I am here to tell you that Ted Williams is the greatest pure hitter in the history of the game.”

“Maybe so, Howard Frank,” my father shot back. “But you have my permission to inform your uncle that Joe DiMaggio is the most complete all-­around player in the history of the game.”

I usually said nothing. For one thing, I was only four. Also, though I already had a keen appreciation for my relatives’ many eccentricities, I didn’t like arguments any more than Dad did. Fortunately, about the time full darkness settled in, we would lose the radio broadcast altogether. Then I would ask my uncle to tell me a story.

“Tell me a story” was my mantra, and Reg knew scores of good ones. Stories of the old bear hunters, ginseng gatherers, mountain guides, hermits, witches, and pioneer families who had settled Chichester. Like the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont when Phillis and I first arrived in the mid-­1960s, Chichester in the ’40’s and ’50’s was a gold mine of stories. My feisty uncle was its Homer, as well as my first storytelling mentor. Reg was working on an anecdotal history of Chichester, and sometimes he would read aloud to me from the manuscript.

Of all Reg’s stories, my favorite was the one that hadn’t yet happened. That was his description of the road trip he and I would take the summer I turned twenty-­one. We’d start out in Robert Frost’s New England, then head for New York City, where my uncle’s favorite New Yorker writer, Joseph Mitchell, had chronicled the lives of his beloved gypsies, street preachers, and fish vendors. We’d visit the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and Forty-­first Street, with its two stone lions guarding the main entrance. Next we’d strike out for the Great Smokies, Thomas Wolfe country—­my uncle loved You Can’t Go Home Again and Look Homeward, Angel. We’d drop by Oxford, Mississippi, and have a gander at Faulkner’s home, slope down to Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s (The Yearling) Florida. Then we’d head for the American West—­Reg, a huge fan of Zane Grey, would read me Grey’s Westerns by the hour. We’d walk the streets of Raymond Chandler’s LA and Dashiell Hammett’s San Francisco, check out James T. Farrell’s Chicago (with a side visit to the Windy City’s great bookstore, Brentano’s,) take a look at Hemingway’s upper Michigan and Aldo Leopold’s Wisconsin. We’d eat at greasy spoons and roadside custard stands, stay at motor courts and tourist cabins. Throw our fly rods and baseball gloves in the backseat and see a ball game in every town that had a team.

Our long-­planned trip was no pipe dream, but my uncle and I never got to take that literary odyssey. By the time I turned twenty-­one and graduated from college, Reg’s wife, my aunt Elsie, wasn’t well, and I’d gotten married and taken a teaching job in northern Vermont. Writing my way from book to book and decade to decade, I set most of my own fiction in my adopted Northeast Kingdom. I turned fifty. Then sixty. Approaching my sixty-­fifth birthday, with regrets for the trip not taken, I began to feel that I had to do it now or never.

Then, in the late autumn of my sixty-­fifth year, came the walk to the post office that would change my life forever.

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