Howard Frank Mosher is one of America's most acclaimed writers. His fiction, set in the world of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, chronicles the intertwining family histories of the natives, wanderers, outcasts, and fugitives-white, Native American, escaped slaves fleeing north, French Canadians, and others-who settled in this remote and beautiful place.
God's Kingdom explores the Kinneson family through the coming of age of the heir, Jim, and its rich and complicated history. Earnest and innocent, a bright high school student, Jim grows curious about the unspoken "trouble in the family" that haunts his father, a small-town newspaper editor, and his grandfather, a raconteur who keeps the Kinnesons' secrets to himself. Layer by layer, tale by tale, sorting out fact from deliberately obscured legend, Jim explores the Kinnesons' long relationship with others in the Kingdom, culminating in a discovery that forever changes his life and place in that world. Beginning with a magical Thanksgiving Day hunting trip in the autumn mountains, and ending with Jim on the brink of leaving home to find life-and perhaps love-on the other side of the ridge, God's Kingdom unfolds with the patient delight of a master storyteller.
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About the Author
Howard Frank Mosher (1942-2017) is the author of more than a dozen books of fiction and nonfiction, including Northern Borders and Disappearances, both made into major motion pictures. Mosher received Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Literature Award, the New England Book Award, and the 2011 New England Independent Booksellers Association's President's Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts. Born in the Catskill Mountains, Mosher lived in Vermont's fabled Northeast Kingdom, "God's Kingdom," for all of his adult life.
Read an Excerpt
By Howard Frank Mosher
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Howard Frank Mosher
All rights reserved.
On the earliest maps of Vermont, the wilderness that would later become Kingdom County was referred to as "Territory but Little Known." The first settlers called it "God's Kingdom," in reference to its remoteness and extraordinary beauty. To this day, you will occasionally hear the term "God's Kingdom" used to suggest the wild and unspoiled character of this last New England frontier.
— THE REVEREND DR. PLINY TEMPLETON,
The Ecclesiastical, Natural, Social, and Political History of Kingdom County
In those years in God's Kingdom there was always a ridge runner. There was always one deer that was bigger, darker, and smarter, with ten or more points on its antlers and a track three fingers wide and as deep as the snow was soft. Of course, there was more snow then. Back when Editor James Kinneson was just Jimmy Kinneson, a boy who had not yet been blooded, it seemed that by Thanksgiving week at the latest there was always a foot of fresh snow in the Kingdom.
The year Jim turned fourteen they referred to the ridge runner as "Jimmy's deer." "That old boy has your name on him, bub," Jim's older brother, Charlie, told him. It was as though Charlie, and Jim's grandfather and namesake, James Kinneson II, and Jim's father, Editor Charles Kinneson, had let the runner grow to a great size so that it would be there for Jim to hunt when he turned fourteen. This was the usual age for a boy to be blooded in the Kingdom of that era.
They left for camp on Thanksgiving Day after the big meal at the Kinneson family farmhouse, heading up along the river toward the Canadian border in Charlie's pickup. Their gear was in the bed of the truck. The open-sighted .30-30 deer rifles they favored in the dense woods on the mountain. Their sleeping bags. An extra set of clothing. "Go light — the lighter the better," was Gramp's hunting motto. Gramp was already at the camp. Charlie and the editor and Jim would meet him there.
As they bounced up the washboard road along the river toward the border, Charlie's empties rolled around on the towing chain under Jim's feet, clattering together like little glass duckpins.
"My God, Charles, you ought to hoe out your rig once every decade or so," the editor said.
"Why?" Charlie said. "I'm just going to give it to Jim when he turns sixteen. He can hoe it out then."
The road ended in a brushy clearing, beyond which the river widened into Pond Number One. The camp boat, a former lumbering bateau painted dark green, sat upside down under a tarp in a stand of black spruce on the shore. They transferred their gear from the truck bed to the boat and started out across the open water. Charlie rowed, the editor sat in the squared-off stern, Jim sat facing backward in the bow. The surface of Pond Number One was calm and the same steel gray as their rifle barrels.
Jim was excited by the prospect of hunting the ridge runner. He'd glimpsed it this past August when he and Gramp were fishing Pond Number One from Gramp's Old Town. They'd spotted the buck drinking from the pond near the collapsing logging dam across the outlet. Except for a white patch on its chest, it was as red in its summer coat as a Jersey cow, and its horns were in velvet. Jim counted six points on each side. The deer lifted its head and watched them for a moment as water slid off its dark muzzle into the pond. Then it made two long bounds and vanished into the woods. Gramp looked at Jim and nodded. That was all. But Jim knew that this was the ridge runner. Come hunting season, if he was smart enough to walk it down and shoot it, this was his deer.
* * *
They put out just above the dam spillway where Jim and Gramp had seen the runner the past summer, and dragged the heavy bateau around the broken-down old dam and put it back into the rippling, noisy current, which carried them fast down the river to Pond Number Two. Charlie would have shipped his oars and shot the spillway in the bateau had he and Jim been alone. Gramp, too, liked to shoot the spillway. But the editor was all about boat safety and water safety, not to mention gun safety, and disapproved of taking any risks whatsoever on the water or in the woods.
Soon the river slowed down and opened out into Pond Number Two. The fishing here was never as good as the fishing in Number One except once in a cloudburst when Jim and Gramp couldn't distinguish between the surface of the pond and the torrents of water pouring out of the sky and trout were rising to their flies so fast that it seemed to be raining fish.
There was no dam at the outlet of Pond Number Two. It had gone out with the ice in a spring freshet decades ago. Just another short stretch of quick water, then Pond Number Three, then the rapids, then the Dead Water between Kingdom and Canada Mountains and, beyond the Dead Water, the big lake, Memphremagog, stretching twenty-five miles across the border into Canada through mountains taller still.
Out on the ponds in the bateau no one spoke much, even Charlie. It was fall-still on the flat open water. The water dripping off the oars and the occasional muffled thunk of an oar blade bumping the wooden side of the bateau was the only sounds this late in the year. Even the pair of loons that raised a brood on Pond Number Three every summer was gone. Jim looked back over his shoulder. The tops of Kingdom and Canada Mountains were invisible in the clouds. Smoke curled out of the black stovepipe of the camp at the foot of Kingdom Mountain. Gramp stood on the pebbly shore next to the green, canvas-covered Old Town, watching as the bateau drew closer.
"I thought the loup-garou had gotten you boys," Gramp said, grabbing the bow of the bateau and pulling it grating up onto the pebbles. "Did you bring along some of that Thanksgiving turkey? For camp meat?"
This was one of Gramp's standard jokes. He supplied the camp meat himself. By the time Jim and his dad and brother arrived at camp, Gramp always had a young doe hanging from the game beam. In those years there was no doe season in Vermont, but Gramp said that God's Kingdom wasn't in Vermont, or in Canada, either. Gramp said that the Kingdom belonged to God. As with the Sabbath, God had created deer for the benefit of mankind, not the other way around.
Jim helped carry the rifles and gear up the slope to the camp. Long ago some Kinneson ancestor had carved the words "God's Kingdom" on the lintel over the door. Jim had never been sure whether "God's Kingdom" referred to the hunting camp or the territory they hunted.
In the hour before supper Charlie walked up the mountain to scout for sign. While Jim's father and grandfather cut up the doe, Jim read in the camp journal, a tall ledger-book with blank white pages where, for one hundred and fifty years, Kinnesons had recorded the weather, seasons, game hunted, fish caught, and visitors to the camp.
Abenaki fur trader, Sabattis, stopped for night en route to Montreal. C. Kinneson, April 3, 1801.
Sighted 6 caribou-deer on ice on Two at sunset. J. Kinneson, January 26, 1815.
And, from the past summer, Jim's single entry:
Spotted huge red buck, 12 points, near dam of Two at sunset. J. Kinneson III, August 10, 1952.
Jim's father liked to say that while Gramp ran the camp, he ran the frying pan. As he fried up venison tenderloins, the editor said, "How many points did this young skipper have, Dad?"
"What, you eat the horns, do you, Charles?" Gramp said, winking at Jim.
Jim grinned. He knew what was coming next.
"If this deer had horns, I'll eat them," the editor said.
The camp door opened and a gust of wind and snow blew in with Charlie. "He's been up there, Jimmy. Your runner. I found his rubs on a young maple. I saw some fresh tracks, too. Headed down toward the cedar swamp along the Dead Water."
"I could have told you all that this afternoon when you arrived, Charlie," Gramp said. "I believe young Jim is going to have a good hunt tomorrow."
"If he doesn't get buck fever and hurry his shot," Charlie said, elbowing Jim.
"Let's eat," Gramp said. "Jim isn't going to get buck fever. Are you, Jimmy?"
"No," Jim said, wishing he had as much confidence in himself as Gramp seemed to have in him.
After supper Jim cleared the table. Charlie heated water in the tin dishpan and washed the dishes as Jim rinsed them with cold water from the hand pump in the wooden sink. Jim liked doing camp chores with his brother. Like their father, the editor, Charlie was tall, six feet two or three. Jim hoped that someday he'd be tall, too, but for his age he was slight, and seemed to favor Gramp instead. Of the three living generations of Kinneson men, Gramp was the best hunter. Even Jim's dad said so. The editor said that Gramp was the best man in the woods in all Kingdom County, and the best storyteller, as well.
Gramp settled into his white-ash old-man's rocker beside the Glenwood. The editor sat at the table, noting the day's weather in the camp journal. Jim and Charlie played King of the Mountain for the choice perch on the lid of the woodbox. After a tussle, Charlie let Jim win. Picking himself up off the floor and laughing, Jim's brother sat down at the table across from the editor.
"I noticed you reading the camp log before supper, Jimmy," Gramp said.
"Yes, sir," Jim said. "They didn't shoot many deer up here in the early years, did they?"
"There weren't many deer to shoot," Gramp said. "There were very few natural meadows for deer to graze in. Just unbroken woods when the first Kinneson came here. That would have been your great-great-great-grandfather Charles I. He came here to hunt men, not deer."
Gramp never hurried a story. After a pause he said, "Charles Kinneson I was born in Scotland. He fought at Culloden with the Bonnie Prince in the uprising of 1745. After the battle he fled to America and settled in Massachusetts. He first came to Vermont in 1759 with Robert Rogers's Rangers. They were on their way north to Canada, on what they called a retaliatory raid against the St. Francis Indians."
Gramp looked at Jim to make sure he was listening. The only sound in the camp was the low ticking of the fire in the Glenwood.
"Four miles west of here, where the river empties into the big lake, Rogers's advance scouts came across a small band of Memphremagog Abenakis drying salmon on wooden racks. The Rangers bided their time. Come nightfall, they formed a human chain, crossed the rapids, and crept up on the Indian encampment. According to Charles I, the Memphremagogs were 'holding high frolic' around their campfires, dancing and celebrating. The Rangers caught them unawares and slaughtered every last man, woman, and child."
Jim's father closed the camp journal. "That was a long time ago, Dad," he said. "It happened and it was a terrible thing. But times have changed, thankfully."
The editor gave Gramp a look Jim couldn't read, but Gramp continued his story. "Charles I reported, Jimmy, that some of the Rangers cut off the heads of the murdered Indians and played at tenpins with them. Finally, Major Rogers made them stop."
"Jesus, Dad," the editor said. "We don't know that for a fact. Jimmy doesn't need to hear that."
Charlie winked at Jim. "I wonder what they used for pins?" he said.
"Who's telling this story, gentlemen, me or you?" Gramp said.
"The story's over," the editor said. "It's pretty much the story of the settling of America, and thank Jesus, it's over."
"Not quite," Gramp said. "Some years later, Charles I returned here. He married a Memphremagog woman named Molly Molasses and became the first white settler in God's Kingdom. He said he settled here to do penance for killing the Indians."
"If so, he could scarcely have picked a better purgatory," Jim's dad said. "This was the end of the known world in those days. 'Territory but Little Known,' they called it."
"Actually," Gramp said, "Charles I built a trading post and a whiskey distillery at the mouth of the river and became quite wealthy."
"That's a good way to do penance," Charlie said. "I wouldn't mind doing penance by getting rich."
They all laughed, and Jim felt relieved because he did not like tension in the family, even when some of it was just joking.
"What do you say, boys?" Gramp said, standing up. "If we're going to tumble out early tomorrow morning and get this young fella blooded, we'd better tumble in now. Hop down, Jimmy. Time to bank the ashes."
Jim jumped down off the woodbox lid and Gramp got a chunk of yellow birch and put it in the Glenwood's firebox and raked coals and ashes over it. The burning birch bark gave off a wintergreen fragrance. Jim could still smell the sweet scent a few minutes later from the camp loft, where he lay in his sleeping bag in the darkness, waiting to fall asleep, waiting for morning to arrive.
* * *
That night Jim stayed awake in the dark a long time, too excited about hunting the ridge runner the next day to sleep. He thought of the years he'd spent practicing. The training started about the time he began school. He and Gramp would go out to the maple orchard behind the farmhouse after a snowfall. Gramp would hand Jim his gold pocket watch. "A quarter of an hour," he'd say. Then he'd head up the slope into the maples.
Fifteen interminable minutes later Jim would start out after his grandfather, following his boot prints in the snow. Gramp would be waiting for him on the upper edge of the sugar bush. "Good hunt," he'd tell Jimmy.
A couple of years later they began tracking on bare ground. At first Gramp left plenty of sign. Broken branches, wet spots on stepping-stones in the brook. Later the tracking got tougher. A single heel mark in a wet meadow, bent-back blades of marsh grass, jittery crows over a copse of balsam fir trees. Once Jim came to a hillside where Gramp's footprints in a dusting of new snow stopped as though he'd been snatched from the face of the earth by a flying saucer. It had taken Jim a long time to figure out that Gramp had walked backward in his own tracks, stepped off into the brook, cut back down the slope in the water, and slipped in behind him.
That was the fall Gramp began taking Jim to the woods with a gun. At ten Jim wasn't allowed to carry the gun, just to accompany Gramp while he walked down a deer. Gramp could track a deer over bare ledge or through the worst cedar jungle. He knew where and when a deer would take to deep water to elude a hunter, when a buck sought high ground instead. He told Jim that over a short distance a deer could outrun a racehorse. But a man had much more endurance than any deer, and could think, besides. If a man used his head, he could always walk down his deer.
Summer evenings Gramp taught Jim to shoot in the meadow beside the farmhouse. They started with a single-shot .22. When Jim was eleven, he began going with Gramp for grouse and ducks with a sixteen gauge. At twelve he learned how to shoot Gramp's .30-30. Once he heard Gramp tell Dad, "The boy is an accurate shot and noticing in the woods." For his age, Gramp said, Jim was as good as the best. Lying in the camp loft, Jim thought that he and Gramp might get their woods sense from Molly Molasses and her Abenaki ancestors. He liked thinking that his original Kingdom forbears were Indians. He did not like to think about Charles I and the other Rangers slaughtering the Memphremagog Abenakis and bowling with their heads.
Jim's dad was always trying to get Gramp to write down his stories, even if the editor didn't entirely approve of Gramp's telling Jim every last gruesome detail. Gramp said he'd leave it to Jim to write the stories of the Kingdom. At fourteen, Jim had already begun to. Now he decided that when he wrote Charles I's story, he would put in the part about the Rangers playing at tenpins with the severed heads. It was both the worst and best part of the story.
This was Jim Kinneson's last thought before drifting off to sleep in God's Kingdom, up in the little-known mountains of northern Vermont hard by the Canadian border.
Clang clang clang clang.
Gramp was beating on the bottom of the dishpan with a spoon. "Wake up, boy. Tumble up, roll out," he called up to Jim. Then the old breakfast joke: "If we had some ham, we could have ham and eggs — if we had some eggs."
They did have ham and eggs, and Mom's homemade bread toasted over an open lid of the Glenwood, and fried potatoes, and tinned prunes since Gramp was a great hand at making sure everyone stayed regular at camp. All washed down with the editor's famous camp coffee: three heaping handfuls of freshly ground coffee thrown in the blue porcelain coffeepot with a broken eggshell to settle the grounds.
Gramp and Jim headed out at first light. They stopped on the edge of the big cedars beside the Dead Water to watch the eastern sky turn pink. Kingdom and Canada Mountains loomed high above the flow. Fifty years ago the Great North Woods Timber Company had erected a long earthen dam across the mouth of the river, flooding out the rapids and creating the deep flow known as the Dead Water in order to prevent logs from jamming up in the notch during the spring drives.
"Walk up through the cedars along the edge of the Dead Water," Gramp said. "You should jump him someplace between here and the notch. Don't push him too hard at first. You don't want to panic him into swimming across the flow into Canada. If you run into trouble or need help dragging him out, fire three shots ten seconds apart. Wait twenty minutes and do it again."
Excerpted from God's Kingdom by Howard Frank Mosher. Copyright © 2015 Howard Frank Mosher. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
2. White Knights,
3. The Ballad of Gaëtan Dubois,
6. Only in the Kingdom,
7. False Spring,
8. Territory but Little Known,
9. The Scout,
10. Memorial Day,
11. Senior Year,
12. God's Kingdom,
About the Author,
Also by Howard Frank Mosher,
Advance Praise for God's Kingdom,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Excellent--Bravo! Finally author has gotten back what he does best--stories about Vermont. I have read all his books