Northern Borders

Northern Borders

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618240098
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 10/19/2011
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 306
Sales rank: 494,668
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.71(d)

About 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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CHAPTER 1

The Farm in Lost Nation

When I was a boy living on my grandparents' Kingdom County farm, I sometimes amused myself by looking through an ancient family Bible in the farmhouse attic. This ponderous tome was a gloomy-looking affair if one ever existed. It weighed a good fifteen pounds, and it was bound tightly shut by a tarnished metal clasp which snapped open with the report of a pistol and never failed to startle me, alone in the remote, dim attic of my grandparents' vast old house.

Once this formidable mechanism had been breached, the Bible's contents were intriguing. Besides the Old and New Testaments, it contained a Kittredge family birth register illuminated in gilt; a death register edged in sable; a table of standard weights and measures from which I gleaned the invaluable information — it must have been invaluable because I still remember it today, some four decades later — that one country furlong is the equivalent of forty rods; a dozen or so remarkably well-preserved wildflowers collected by a distant aunt said to have died at eighteen of a broken heart; and several pages of genealogical charts inscribed with the biblical-sounding names of more ancestors than I'd ever dreamed one boy could lay claim to, beginning with my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather: the first Kittredge to venture up into the trackless mountain fastness that would become Kingdom County.

His name, aptly enough, was Sojourner Kittredge, and he was a Loyalist schoolteacher and part-time log sawyer who fled Connecticut and the American Revolution for Canada in the summer of 1775 with a lone red ox and a high-sided cart containing all his worldly possessions. Two arduous months later, my ancestor stopped for good on the headwaters of a small, fast, icy river, which he promptly named the Kingdom, in honor of his beloved mother empire. Unfortunately, there was one small difficulty with Sojourner's choice of a homestead. As my grandfather, who disliked all schoolteachers in general and those in our own family in particular, loved to tell me nearly two centuries later, the old Tory had put down stakes here as the result of a minute but fateful miscalculation. Since the Kingdom River drains north, toward the St. Lawrence, though by a circuitous and at times even contradictory route, he erroneously assumed that he had already reached Canada and sanctuary when in fact he'd fetched up instead in northern Vermont.

Not, you understand, that such a trifling technicality as a line on a map mattered a whit to the old expeditionary once he'd made up his mind to stay put. By the time Sojourner finally figured out where he actually was, the Revolution had been over for several years. He'd already established the first grammar school and sawmill in Lost Nation, as he wryly named our township. And by then he did not have the slightest intention of lighting out again for Canada or anyplace else, though for three generations afterward his descendants marched in the Independence Day parades in Kingdom Common wearing bright scarlet coats and carrying the Union Jack.

This is nearly all I know about my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather — except that in 1790 he astonished his neighbors and outraged his heirs by ceding the title to a ten-thousand-acre tract of woodland just south of the Canadian border to the state whose authority to govern any other part of the Kingdom he refused to acknowledge to his dying day. Sojourner's intention was for Vermont to use the donated property as the site of a college to educate the youth of its white settlers and native Abenakis alike. In exchange, he neither demanded nor received a single shilling. He requested only a written guarantee that every qualified graduate of the Lost Nation Atheneum, as he rather grandiosely called his one-room country school, be entitled to attend the proposed state college free of charge, for as long as the grammar school and college should both exist.

Of course the University of Vermont never did take advantage of my ancestor's offer. Instead it situated itself one hundred miles across the Green Mountains to the southwest, on the considerably more clement and accessible shores of Lake Champlain. Yet even after the university sold off its Kingdom real estate holdings to pay debts incurred during the Civil War, it continued to honor the agreement between Sojourner Kittredge and the state that he otherwise declined to recognize. All duly prepared graduates of Lost Nation Atheneum were entitled to attend the university at no expense to themselves; and it was partly as a result of this ancient pact that a Kittredge family decision was reached that I would receive the first eight years of my education at the tiny country schoolhouse established one hundred and seventy years ago by my forward-looking ancestor, and live during those years with my Kittredge grandparents on their farm in Lost Nation Hollow, spending some of my school vacations with my father in White River Junction, eighty miles to the south.

Other considerations influenced my father's decision to send me north to Kingdom County, however. No doubt the first, and most weighty, was that my mother had been dead for nearly a year at the time, and my father had concerns about raising me entirely on his own. As a child and teenager, my mother had waged a protracted and costly battle with tuberculosis, and throughout her brief adult life she continued to have periodic relapses. Several times since marrying my father and having me she had been forced to return to the famous Trudeau Institute at Saranac Lake, where she'd spent much of her youth; and for several months when I was two, she convalesced at a sanatorium in Tucson, Arizona, while my Grandmother Kittredge kept house for my father and took care of me in White River. I don't remember that my mother ever said much about her illness to me. I'm sure she made every effort not to. But from my grandmother and my two little aunts, Dad's sisters, I received at a very early age the alarming impression that Mom was much more sickly than she ever revealed. "Your mother is a poor frail soul if one ever existed," my grandmother told me frequently; and although it was terribly difficult for me to lose her when I was just five years old, I must say that even at that tender age, it came as more of a surprise than an outright shock.

From those early years, I vividly recall two things about my mother. Unlike most of the Kittredges, including my father and both of my grandparents, she laughed easily and frequently. And she loved to read to me, so that one of my very earliest and strongest childhood recollections is of sitting beside her on a rather battered green living room couch and looking at the pictures in the storybooks we went through together by the dozens, especially the marvelous old tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, whose brilliantly-colored illustrations of the most hideous scenes and creatures imaginable I found deeply fascinating.

Because of my mother's huge medical bills, the opportunity to send me to college free someday must have been unusually appealing to my father. And a further factor in his decision to send me up to my grandparents' farm in Lost Nation was that as headmaster of the White River Academy, my father, wisely enough, did not want me to be stigmatized, possibly for the next twelve years, as the principal's son. Also I believe that Dad may have had a secret motivation in sending me north — one he did not mention to anyone.

For many years my grandfather and my father had not, as my little aunts put it, seen eye to eye with each other. Dad had left home at eighteen for the state university and returned only for brief visits. The division had deepened when, to my grandfather's utter disgust, my father had chosen to become a schoolteacher. But time and distance have a way of softening even the most acrimonious of family feuds; and although I have no real evidence that this was the case, I strongly suspect that I was sent to Kingdom County partly as a peace offering from my father to my grandfather.

What I know for certain is my father decided that to become acclimated to the Farm, as we called my grandparents' place, and to my grandparents themselves, who to this day remain two of the most unusual people I have ever met, it would be helpful for me to spend the summer before I entered the first grade with them in Lost Nation. We would try a one-month stint at first and see how it went. Dad would then visit me in Lost Nation, and if all was going well, I would stay on at least for the rest of the summer.

And this is how, one sunny June afternoon a few days after my sixth birthday, I came to be waving good-bye to my father from the grimy window of a Boston to Montreal passenger car carrying me north toward the wild border country of Kingdom County and, though I had no way to know it, some of the most memorable years of my life.

What do I remember from that long-ago train trip up the Connecticut River to the little-known territory that might well become my new home for the next eight years or more? Fleeting impressions, mainly. Backward-rushing glimpses of the river, with cows and barns spread out at intervals along it. Small villages with tall white church steeples. A few bridges. For some reason I also recall that the seat material was of a fuzzy, worn felt, which set my teeth on edge when I ran my fingernails over it, and made me shiver. What a solemn, daydreaming, standoffish little fellow I must have been, with an entire seat to myself and my suitcases, which to the annoyance of the conductor I had insisted on carrying aboard with me. In one were my clothes. The other contained my favorite storybooks.

Of course I was sad to be leaving home, and somewhat apprehensive about my first solo train ride. But there have been few times in my life when I have not been able to achieve a degree of serenity by immersing myself in a book — in part, no doubt, because my books provided me with a certain tangible connection with my mother even after her death. Shortly after leaving White River I dug a copy of Heidi out of my suitcase-library, and soon I was far off in the Swiss Alps, though whether I was absorbed mainly by the book's gorgeous color plates of the mountains, or my recollections of the tale as read to me by my mother, or the actual words themselves, I don't know. I do remember being especially interested in Heidi's old hermit-grandfather, since not long before her death my mother had confided to me that he had always reminded her of my own grandfather, who could be "rather gruff" himself at times. To which my father had bluntly replied, "Gruff! Good God, the man's a bona fide misanthrope." I didn't know what a misanthrope was, bona fide or otherwise. But it sounded forbidding and I must say that I looked forward to meeting my grandfather for the first time with some trepidation.

As we rolled north on the local passenger train, or Buntliner, as it was called — the entire train consisted of a silver-and-blue engine that looked more like a passenger car than a locomotive, and four silver-and-blue coaches — the hills became steeper and shaggier. The farms began to look shabbier. The spanking white houses and fire-engine red barns gave way to unpainted houses connected by swaybacked sheds and ells to listing barns. In the farm dooryards, lilacs were just coming into blossom though back in White River the lilacs had gone by two weeks ago.

At one riverside town a fearsome-looking old man with long gray hair and black whiskers and a greasy slouch hat got on my coach and sat down in the seat opposite me. When the Buntliner pulled out of the station, he produced a flat, amber-colored glass flask from his lumber jacket pocket and took two or three swigs of a very vile-looking dark liquid. As he wiped off his mouth with the back of the hand holding the flask, he darted a severe look out from under his drooping hat brim straight at me. I looked away fast. But when I glanced back at him a moment later he was still staring at me. And in a single, bonechilling moment, it became irrefutably clear to me that this bewhiskered apparition was in fact my grandfather.

The conductor who'd been annoyed with me for bringing my bags into the car was coming down the aisle checking tickets. "Have you been drinking, mister?" he said to the old man.

"No, sir!" he declared.

The conductor knew better. "There's no drinking permitted in the day coaches," he said. "I've had to speak to you about it before, haven't I?" "I don't believe so," said my grandfather in a very loud and very indignant voice.

The conductor gave him a hard look. "Well," he said, "I mean business. If I catch you drinking, I'll put you off at the next station without a second thought."

He moved on down the aisle, swaying to the motion of the train like a veteran trick-rider at the circus. There were only five or six other passengers in our coach, including a large woman in a small blue hat and a minister with a white patch of collar showing. After punching their tickets with an odd little silver apparatus, the conductor swayed gracefully back up the aisle, and passed on into the next car.

In the meantime, the whiskery man was shooting me many covert, fierce looks. He knew very well that I'd seen him drinking from the amber flask. I had no idea what was in it, of course, or why drinking was not permitted in the day coaches. But the old fellow now seemed to feel that he owed me some sort of explanation for the very palpable falsehood he'd told the conductor. For without the slightest warning he lunged halfway out of his seat across the aisle toward me and growled, "I suppose you're a-wondering why I ain't drinking when it appears otherwise, be you, be you?"

Not having the faintest idea how to respond to this query, I didn't.

"Aha!" he said, and took another quick pull at his bottle. "Cat's got his tongue, I see."

He made another start in my direction, seizing the armrest of my seat for support. With his flushed face very close to mine he said, "Speaking of cats, which you wasn't but I was, I've got a cat up home to Lost Nation that weighs twenty pounds. It weighs as much as a wheel of cheese."

He raised his tangled gray eyebrows as though to better impress me with this disclosure. Then he said, "This cat of mine can kill five full-growed rats in a grain barrel in sixty seconds flat. Do you believe that?" "Yes," I said. Although I was not quite sure how we had gotten so rapidly from the matter of his drinking or not drinking to cats, I was very eager to accommodate this rough old cob, if only to forestall another ferocious lunge in my direction. Also, his mentioning Lost Nation Hollow confirmed for me that this was indeed my grandfather and namesake, Austen Kittredge, in what I fervently hoped was some sort of raffish disguise designed to help him assess me unobserved.

"Besides rats," he continued, "this cat that weighs as much as a cheese cannot abide dogs, other cats, or spying young boys. Neither as a rule can I."

The topic of the rat-fighting cat had evidently made my traveling companion thirsty. He sneaked another long drink. Then he made as if to offer me one. Before I could decide what to do he whipped the flask back out of sight and chuckled and nodded his head knowingly.

"Now," he said to the entire passenger car in an altogether different, remarkably businesslike tone, "why ain't I a-drinking? I shall tell you why. I ain't a-drinking for that I ain't a drinker."

This revelation was received by the rest of the car with stunned disbelief. By now everyone had seen the bottle, which he had all along made a great show of displaying and then hiding. But an explanation was forthcoming.

Giving me a look of the deepest significance, he announced, "Why ain't I a drinker? Because I'm a sipper. Do you understand that?" I said I did, whereupon he fetched out the bottle again and knocked back two or three of the longest sips in the history of the world.

"Ain't I an awful old whore, though?" he said with a smirk of his whiskers, and both the big woman in the small hat and the minister gasped.

Whereupon the gentleman who was my grandfather tipped me a sly wink and ripped out loudly, "Ain't you and I both a pair of old whores, though."

I readily agreed that we were. This seemed to please him a good deal. So much so, in fact, that he entrusted me with a grave charge. "My boy," he said, "I want you to watch sharp. Watch sharp, and notify me immediately if you spot that train fella coming through again."

So saying he repaired to the far corner of his seat to nurse his bottle, sipping away to beat the band, while I kept an eye out for the conductor, and wondered what an old whore was and, for that matter, what a young whore was, and just what sort of country this Lost Nation that I was traveling to might be.

"What's in them two valises?" the sipping man barked out suddenly a few minutes later, pointing with the neck of the flask at my suitcases.

"Your duds?"

"Yes. And books."

"Books!" he said in an outraged voice. "What sort of books?"

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Northern Borders"
by .
Copyright © 1994 Howard Frank Mosher.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Lesser Oregon1
1The Farm in Lost Nation5
2Hannibal Rex49
3The Snow Owl79
4The Green Mountain Whale95
5Down the Coat126
6Upland Game158
7Lost Nation Calendar173
8Family Reunion194
9The Season of the Cluster Flies229
10Northern Borders261

What People are Saying About This

Fannie Flagg

A touching and unforgettable portrait.

Tobias Wolff

Northern Borders is a wonderful performance, by turns touching and funny, always exact, and graced by...love for his land and people.

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Northern Borders: A Novel 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
pugterranian on LibraryThing 28 days ago
An all-time favorite, probably in my top 5 list of "most enjoyed books!" Very sweet and funny, "Northern Borders" is really a book of stories from the wild "northeast kingdom," that very rural region of Vermont full of eccentric characters. New Englanders will recognize the grandfather as the quintessential Yankee: taciturn and distant, he nonetheless displays a soft side in the unexpectedly sweet and touching end chapters.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I didn't want this fascinating book to end. Its characters were so real, for the time I was reading the book, they became part of my life. I read primarily for enjoyment, and every minute that I spent with Northern Borders was moving and thoughtful. I'm not sure I have ever loaned a copy of a book to as many people as I have this one.