On Brassard's Farm: A Novel

On Brassard's Farm: A Novel

by Daniel Hecht


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In a radical departure from her urban life, Ann Turner buys a piece of remote Vermont land and sets up a tent home in deep forest. She’s trying to escape an unending string of personal disasters in Boston; more, she desperately wants to leave behind a world she sees as increasingly defined by consumerism, hypocrisy, and division.

As she writes in her journal, “There’s got to be a more honest, less divided way to live.”

She soon learns she was mistaken in thinking a kindly Mother Earth would grant her wisdom and serenity in her new home. The forest confronts her with unanticipated dangers, aching loneliness, harsh weather, instinctive fears, and unsettling encounters with wild animals. It’s beautiful, yes, but life in the woods is never easy. When necessity requires her to start work as a farmhand, she quickly realizes that she held similarly childish illusions about small farms. Under the stern tutelage of Diz Brassard, the farm’s sixty-year-old matriarch, and the gentler guidance of Earnest Kelley, an Oneida Indian friend of the Brassards, she discovers what hard work really means. Ann faces her predicament with determination, but there’s a lot to learn—about the Brassard family, about dairy farming, and about herself. If she is to succeed in her new life, she must become as tough and resilient as the rural community she lives in. She must also learn to accept love—even if it arrives in the most unexpected forms.

On Brassard’s Farm is a tale of personal struggle, sweeping transformation, and romantic love. Author Daniel Hecht tells of Ann Turner’s quest for a better life with unsparing honesty and gentle humor. Through its portrayal of the unrelenting labor and harsh pragmatism of farming, On Brassard’s Farm reveals the deep durability of rural life and offers a much-needed affirmation in a changing and uncertain world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982546465
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
Publication date: 04/02/2019
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 801,734
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Daniel Hecht was a professional guitarist for twenty years. He took up writing in 1989 and received his MFA degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1992. His first novel, Skull Session, was a bestseller. He lives in Montpelier, Vermont.

Read an Excerpt


If I had to give a name to what kind of tale mine is, I would certainly have to call it a love story. But it's not the kind of story we usually think of when hearing those words. The difference is not only what's meant by "love," but also whom or what is loved, and how one goes about it.

The only sensible beginning place is the land itself. It is the foundation of everything that has happened to me: the physical solidity of the granite and earth I placed my feet on. That inarguable material presence allowed me to brace myself. It was there I felt the Earth's gravity for the first time as an embrace in which I was not held down but simply held.

I first saw the land in early spring. From the interstate exit, I had driven about twenty miles on the paved road, then another six on dirt. This was hardly wilderness, but it was pretty wild for a woman who had lived in the city all her life. I passed through several towns and hamlets, but mainly it was trees and more trees, in a mist of palest pink or pale yellow-green from near-bursting buds. A darting deer, farms with mud-smeared, disinterested cows, shambling houses settling to earth deep among flaking apple trees. Snow-broken, sway-backed abandoned barns. Some badly cut-over woods. Derelict mobile homes. Muddy ruts. My hosts at the bed-and-breakfast had told me that in Vermont this is called "mud season," and correctly warned me that the back roads would be soupy. In spots, my car skated and bogged and I wasn't sure I'd make it through.

At the top of a forested ridge, I turned and started downhill on a yet narrower road that was little more than a slot between overhanging branches.

Soon, the woods opened up and gave me a better view of the valley in which Brassard's farm lay. To the left, pasture sloped gently down to a small stream, then steeply up again, the fields yielding to forest that rose to a wooded ridge. Mottled black and white cows — I didn't yet know a Holstein from a rhinoceros — ranged on the near slope. To the right ran a narrow strip of ragged untended field, last year's milkweeds parched and tufted above dead brown high grass. Above this field rose a steep, flat-topped forested hill, an unlikely arm projecting from the main ridge. It thrust up from the sloping valley in the shape of an ironing board or a submarine just emerging from the depths.

Coming down the hill, I got a good overview of Brassard's place: a cluster of sheds big and small, silos, an old barn with a ramp to its gable-end door, and a house. Scattered among them were trucks, tractors, and two cars that had seen some use.

A pleasant scene, I thought. Remote enough. I had looked at two disappointing parcels of land, but here my pulse picked up. Maybe this was it, maybe I was now looking at my future. It was not postcard pretty, but ruggedly comely in its curves and proportions. Close enough for jazz, as my ex-husband might have said, and I liked jazz. When I could fool myself enough, I liked to think of this whole thing as an upbeat jazzy urbanite taking an improvisatory turn into new territory.

A mailbox with "Brassard" painted on it reassured me that I'd found the right place. I pulled up between house and barn and turned off the car. My windows were open to the spring air, so that a wet smell of manure and mud came to me. The house had white clapboard siding with dark green trim around the doors and on the shutters, and a covered porch faced the road. The nearer barn was a looming ark of faded red paint with a row of small white-trimmed windows along its lowest level. Between house and barn, the driveway faded into a functional dirt yard, where a blue and white tractor sat, surrounded by various farm implements. A man in mud-stained jeans and T-shirt was doing something to the tractor's motor, but he extricated his arms and put down his tools as I pulled up.

I got out, suddenly feeling citified and naive about country life and farms and machines and men like the one who was now looking questioningly at me. He wasn't tall, probably my height, but was wide and thick in all his parts, his bare arms muscular. With his deep copper skin and blunt facial features, he was hardly the gaunt, long-faced Yankee I'd unconsciously expected: Brassard would be Uncle Sam in coveralls, the dour pitchfork-wielding farmer in American Gothic. This guy was Mexican, I thought, or maybe Native American.

"Are you Mr. Brassard?" I asked.

He turned toward the barn door and bellowed, "Jim! That Boston gal's here." To me: "He's in there somewhere."

He went back to the tractor, wedging his arms into a narrow part at the front of the motor. I stood there, feeling the give of mud beneath my suddenly wildly inappropriate white running shoes, not knowing what was expected of me. I didn't really want to walk toward the barn and muddy the shoes further. The wide man's wrench clanked, and a cow bawled down in the pasture. Otherwise, silence.

After a long minute, an older man emerged from the barn, wiping his hands on a rag. He did wear denim coveralls over a checked shirt, but he was no dried-up Puritan. He was a tall man in his sixties: big in the chest and belly, clean-shaven fleshy pink face, thinning hair cut short and gone mostly gray.

"You're Miss Tanner?"

"Turner, yes. Thanks for taking the time to see me, Mr. Brassard."

"Well, I ain't gonna sell the piece if somebody don't come look at it. I'd shake your hand, but you don't want to get what I got on your hands. Come all the way from Boston this mornin', did you?"

"No. Just from Montpelier. I'm staying at a bed-and-breakfast. It's ..." I felt a need to flatter the landscape, but Jim Brassard probably didn't need my approval for the place he'd lived all his life. But now I had to finish: "... lovely here."

His face remained expressionless. "You want some coffee or something, use the facilities? Or you want to just go on up and take a look?"

"I'm fine with just looking at the land. If this is an okay time for you."

"Good's any other."

A yellow Lab-mix dog came up to nose my jeans. I roughed him around the ears and he licked my hand.

"Yep, Bob, he's a friendly one," Brassard said. "Now you've got him as your best buddy for life, won't leave you alone. Throw a stick and he'll be at you to do it again all day. Won't you, bud?" Bob went over to Brassard, who worked his pelt down his spine until the dog's back leg twitched up. Brassard's hands were huge, each finger thicker than my thumb.

The man at the tractor took his arms out and wiped his hands on his pants and looked on as Bob nosed me again and Brassard fished in his pockets to jangle keys. The wide man smiled. Native American, I decided.

Spring smell: You think you know it, but you can't until you're out on a small farm in the woods of New England. Break a stalk of celery and put your nose up to it; that's a bit of the smell. Add a touch of lime, when you take the wedge and squeeze it into your Corona. A little rosewater and the dry smell of ice. A wet earth smell like the one that rises from the pots when you water your houseplants, here supplemented with the murky sweet of manure.

Those things I instinctively recognized, though my experience of them was largely limited to a much weaker version along the river in Cambridge. It was a distillation of newness and optimism and another start after the snows.

Brassard pointed out the land I'd come to see: that ironing board or emerging submarine above us to the west. It was his opinion that taking a tractor up would be our best bet. Perhaps he was considering the burden of his own heavy body — he walked with a hitch that suggested sore joints. Or maybe he saw my obvious unreadiness for a steep uphill trek in spongy earth and mud. He went around the barn to get another tractor, leaving me alone with Bob the dog and the unnamed man wrestling with the blue tractor's engine.

"So," I hazarded, "you work for Mr. Brassard?"

He grinned back at me. "Looks that way."

"I'm Ann Turner. What's your name?"

"Earnest Kelley. I make myself useful when Jim needs a hand.

Think you'll buy that land?"

I heard an engine fire up, popping and clattering on the other side of the barn. "Thinking of it, yes."

"What for?" Earnest didn't look my way. Whatever he was working on under the engine compartment of the tractor was giving him trouble.

I was sure I wore my desperation on my face, obvious as a billboard, but I hesitated for only a heartbeat. "Just a place to get away to once in a while. I thought I'd build a cabin, spend some time there in the summers. I'm a middle-school teacher. Just moved to Vermont."

I could have said more — this explanation, tossed off to others and to myself, was somewhere between a convenience and a lie — but this wasn't the moment, and this guy wasn't the person. In any case, Jim Brassard was coming around the barn driving a green and yellow tractor, and it was time for me to go figure things out in more pragmatic and present-tense ways. We were going to ride this contraption up the ridge to the forty-acre parcel he was selling.

"Best you ride the hitch rack," he called down to me. "Put your feet on the two bars there and hold on up here. It gets steep; you want to hold on good."

A sort of shelf of steel bars stuck out behind the tractor's cab, offering a pair of flat blades between the big cleated wheels. I put one foot on each, found it reasonably secure, and got a good grip on the bars that supported the canopy over the seat. He checked my position, asked Earnest to hold Bob until we were over in the other field, and moved a lever on the steering wheel. The tractor's motor clattered faster and the wheels began kicking up slats of mud.

We crossed the road and chugged between two posts holding sagging barbed wire, then up a dirt track through the strip of scrub. Brassard had to holler back at me over the engine noise: "This here would be your access road."

In the muddy places, the tractor sashayed from side to side and it felt dangerous — those enormous wheels churning close on each side, my Adidas joggers keeping a tenuous grip. I wedged my feet into the welded joint to keep them from slipping.

"Forty acres, never could farm 'em — can't get a truck or a cow up there. Lots of ledge, no good for pasture. Some good timber, though. Figured I wasn't usin' it anyways; maybe somebody'd put up a hunting camp. What'd you want with it anyway?"

"Yes, just a little cabin," I yelled at him. "For summer."

I didn't think conversation was possible, given the noise. And now I was becoming distracted by the delight of riding the tail end of a tractor grinding through spring mud and by the valley view that opened as we got higher. It was like starting out on a carnival ride. An adventure! The newness of it cut through the layers of caution and doubt and angst and ennui to a quickening down at the center of me. I was already touching something real.

The bristle-cut back of Brassard's head half turned. "You okay back there?"

"I'm fine," I screamed.

He moved the throttle and our speed picked up. "Yep, it's not for livin on, not for farmin," he bellowed. "Can't get a car up there.

Cuts its sale value. Maybe you could swing a right-of-way from the folks at the top of the ridge, but knowin them it's a slim to none chance. Need a hell of a long access road, power and phone, forget it unless you're a millionaire. Cell phone, maybe — don't know, but we don't get reception down at the house. You want to get away, this'd be the spot."

I didn't try to respond. The engine noise coming through the bobbing cap on the exhaust stack was too loud. We ground up to the first steep rise, where the trees began, then turned left and followed a pair of ruts than ran parallel to the ridge. A rugged, near-vertical face of granite reared on our right. The ground was drier here, better traction, and now the tractor swayed not from the yield of mud but from hard uneven ground knuckled with bumps of granite. I held on until my fingers ached as we took a hairpin and angled up the other way. Soon we were above the cliff, and through the trees I could see the farm below. When the breeze shifted, the diesel exhaust blew straight back into my face. Between it and the rolling motion, I began to feel a little sick.

After another hairpin and a longer curve, the track began to level out and we emerged on top of a sort of plateau, forested but clearly once inhabited: on a patch of brambly open land, a few ancient apple trees surrounded a stacked-stone cellar hole, mostly filled in and grown up in blackberry cane. Once we got onto the flat, Brassard ratcheted down a brake pedal and cut the engine. I stepped down, but he stayed in his seat above me, a florid-faced knight on his mechanical steed.

"Well, this's it. Property line on the far side, west boundary, is about where the hill comes down. Down to the bottom there you'll see the old stone wall; that's the start of Hubbard's land, next farm over. Up to the top, you go until you hit the big jumbled boulders on the slope there, that's about the end. Goslants own everything above the rocks."

He took off his billed Agri-Mark cap and scratched his head. "You want me to walk it over with you?"

It was clear that he didn't want to. I wouldn't have minded a better sense of where the land began and ended — I understood that borders were important in property transactions — but more than anything, I wanted to be alone here. I'd hoped I would know my refuge when I found it, that there'd be a certain pull from the soil or the trees, some song of recognition, to assure me that this was my place to go to ground. I needed to listen for it without distraction.

"I'm fine walking around by myself. I can explore and I'll come down on my own. You don't need to come up for me, or anything."

He was frowning off uphill. "Some water up here," he said doubtfully. "Had to've been for someone to live here back when. Seems I saw a spring once. Couldn't tell you where; you might want to scout it out. Good to have water."

Then he set his cap firmly on his head, pushed the button on the tractor dash. The exhaust cap bounced and the motor rattled to life. "Yep, fine with me. Got enough to do, that's for sure. Just you walk around. You can't find me when you get down, look for Earnest. Be a nice piece up if you don't mind walkin in. Four-wheeler could do it. Winter, you could get up with a Ski-Doo."

He turned the tractor in a half circle, one wheel motionless as the other pivoted around. He waved once as he headed away. He was gone from sight as soon as he made the first bend. The tractor noise dwindled until it became inaudible.

I was alone on an almost-level forested hilltop where I'd never been before in my life. Through the trees, I could see other hills rolling away to a distant backdrop of mountains.

I turned in a slow circle to get a quick view in every direction and felt a tick of fear. I knew there were bears and bobcats out here, and I'd watched Deliverance back whenever.

But I loved it. Not yet so much the land itself, which I'd barely seen and which seemed only ambiguously acceptable; I loved this moment. Just being here, having this adventure. Or just being — awareness of being itself kindled in me.


I know, personal stories are supposed to begin with some kind of life history, but I don't want to tell you a great deal about the person I was before I found the land. Much of it's boring. Some of it's awful. I was the Hindenburg going down in flames when I first arrived. And now it strikes me as a distraction from what matters.

But, of course, any present or future has its roots in a past. I could pretend that my seeking a patch of wild forest was a typical back-to-the-land impulse, a sort of ordinary thing to do. But there was more to the tropism. I'd had two wretched, horrid years and was in abject retreat from my prior life and aspects of the world and myself that I despaired of ever coping with.

I was also moved by some better impulses, unrevealed to me despite my self-probings. I now know that our lives are moved equally by the lash of circumstance and the pull of unrecognized longings, and both can steer us true. Both were required to lead me to Brassard's farm.


Excerpted from "On Brassard's Farm"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Daniel Hecht.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
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.

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On Brassard's Farm 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Sandy5 More than 1 year ago
Ann takes what is left of herself and buys some remote land in Vermont. The land was once part of the Brassard’s Farm, a dairy farm ran by a couple and their hired hand, Earnest. This was an impulse buy for Ann, as her original plan didn’t pan out. Ann finds herself living in a tent and cooking over a camp stove. It’s scary living out on her own, under the stars, but Ann wanted to leave her old life behind and start anew. She’s bought the land with some inheritance money that she had received from her aunt and when the rest of the monies didn’t come through, Ann finds herself working at the farm to pay off her debt. It’s hard work, harder than she thought. Every evening she struggles to make her way up the hillside to her land, to finish out her day, so she can repeat the process again the next day. Ann begins to find a rhythm to her daily life, finding both physical and mental strength as she helps around the farm. Slowly, she becomes a part of the inner workings of the other individuals who make up Brassard Farm. The farm becomes a part of Ann, she finds comfort and pride in her surroundings. As I read this novel, I was immersed into the Vermont landscape. The green, rough terrain and vast beauty of the trees and brush, were at my side. As Ann cooked out on her camp stove, I imagined the smells and sounds as they trickled down through the hills. The wildlife ran free, they ate their fill and slept where they wanted, for they didn’t need humans to make their lives comfortable. The endless cycle of being a dairy farmer made me tired, it was the relentless upkeep and organization that filled their lives. The fear of the unknown, the fear of no control and the fear of tomorrow were always looming over their head. It all seemed too real yet it was something I hadn’t stopped to think about. It was called home for many but for me, this was an adventure. I was allowed an opportunity to view a life that I would never lead. I received a copy of this novel from NetGalley and Blackstone Publishing in exchange for an honest review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago