The Great Northern Express: A Writer's Journey Homeby Howard Frank Mosher
Several months before novelist Howard Frank Mosher turned sixty-five, he learned that he had prostate cancer. Following forty-six intensive radiation treatments
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.
“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.”
"Mosher colorfully weaves stories...to 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."
“Hilarious, poignant, and honest, this bittersweet memoir is a sheer delight to read.”
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Read an Excerpt
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.
Meet the Author
HOWARD FRANK MOSHER is the author of ten novels and two memoirs. He was honored with the New England Independent Booksellers Association's President's Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts and is the recipient of the Literature Award bestowed by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His novel A Stranger in the Kingdom won the New England Book Award for fiction and was later made into a movie, as were his novels Disappearances and Where the Rivers Flow North.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Frank needs to get back to earlier books that were wonderful VT stories. Needs to get away from the last several books that were about his personal adventures. I've rea all his books and this was fair at best
This is a dear , laugh out loud ,great read! Tender,funny and interesting ! Loved every page
This book promised: 1) an account of a road trip, 2) visit(s) to various, independent booksellers across the country, 3) a journey that leads “home.” This was the first book by Mr. Mosher, a.k.a. “Frank Who,” I have read so his humorous telling of his trek was a bonus. When Howard Frank Mosher was 65, he applied for a McArthur Grant, which would pay him to “practice his art,” however he saw fit, for a year. His “McArthur Grant,” came in the form of a Cancer diagnosis. He took the moment of clarity offered by such a shock to decide he would fulfill a fifty-year-old promise – to visit the “haunts” of the authors of he and his favored Uncle Reg loved to read. He makes this 100 city, 20,000 mile odyssey, in a 20-year-old Chevy Celebrity he has named “the Loser Cruiser;” his traveling companions are: Uncle Reg (beloved uncle and dead 15 years), various authors (also deceased) and the “West Texas Jesus.” All of these “companions” offer direction, suggestions and generally play “Jiminy Cricket” to Mr. Mosher’s “Pinocchio.” In planning his itinerary, Mr. Mosher could have used a better GPS or at least consulted a map. He frequently back tracks, travels a few miles between book signings (the incentive for this tour is the promotion of his latest book) then drives extreme distances in a day (like from Miami to Texas). The book relates the story “as the tour happens” interspersed with the details of his move to Orleans, Kingdom County, Vermont in the early 1960’s. While entertaining, why the details of this recalling are included in this travelogue are unclear. The author quotes Larry McMurtry at points and the book is largely derivative of Mr. McMurtry’s Roads. Where Roads is a book detailing a road trip for the sake of “seeing where the road goes,” this book has much less focus. Apart from the imaginary riders, Mr. Mosher speaks of some bizarre occurrences he experienced while on his trip. I am not sure if those events were fiction meant to highlight the unusual trip he was on, if they were indicative of a more profound mental issue (possibly from the 44 radiation treatments he received to treat his cancer) with which he has come to accept or if they were actual events. The book was fun, but it is not one that will be the top of any “must read” lists.
I love fishing stories. Lord know why, since I can remember only fishing a couple of times in my life. There is something about the sinuous dance of the line, the exotic choice of flies, the murmur of water, the glint of sun that mesmerizes me. And perhaps there is something about that wily fisherman hatching his next story in the big outdoors that makes even failure seem like a good day. Howard Frank Mosher did not write a fish story. Well, not really. But it felt like one. He gives us long, lazy, drawling storytelling as he rolls from one state to another on his cross-country book tour. You might say he was casting a line in all those independents he visited: some holes were dry and some were hopping. In bookstore readings with an author we get perhaps an hour of the author’s time, giving a reading, telling anecdotes. In The Great Northern Express we have hours of stories, the best ones, about what it is like to live in a mill town in far north New England, to be an author, to travel the country flogging one’s wares in a vehicle so ragged that every mile gained is both a prayer and a miracle. We learn of the man and his life, his influences, his decisions, his joys and cankers. And we get some of the best yankee backcountry jawing around. More than once, he reminded me of the classic book Go With Me by Castle Freeman about northeastern Yankees sitting around an abandoned chair factory for fun. I’m glad Mosher took his long-promised trip, but I wish he’d had more time for fishing.
I'm a fan of Howard Frank Mosher and that's why this gets three stars. His fiction is fabulous partly because the characters he creates the most wonderful characters who come to life and are interesting to read about. But the author is not interesting. He's a great writer, but his own life is not all that exciting. He would make a great neighbor, probably, just not a great subject for a book. I look forward to his next novel.
Warm, witty, really funny, tall tale teller. Now going to read more Mosher. I highly recommend it.