Points North: Stories

Points North: Stories

by Howard Frank Mosher


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The final book by one of America’s most treasured writers.

Upon his passing in January 2017, Howard Frank Mosher was recognized as one of America’s most acclaimed writers. His fiction set in the world of Vermont’s fabled Northeast Kingdom chronicles the intertwining family histories of the natives, wanderers, outcasts, and others who settled in this ethereal place. In its obituary, The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Mosher’s fictional Kingdom County, Vt., became his New England version of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.”

In Points North, completed just weeks before his death, Mosher presents a brilliant, lovingly-evoked collection of stories that center around the Kinneson family, ranging over decades of their history in the Kingdom. From a loquacious itinerant preacher who beguiles the reticent farmers and shopkeepers of a small New England town, to a proposed dam that threatens the river that Kinneson men have fished for generations, the scandalous secret of a romance and its violent consequences, and a young man’s seemingly fruitless search for love—Points North is a full-hearted, gently-comic, and beautifully-written last gift to the readers who treasure Howard Frank Mosher.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250161932
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/23/2018
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.82(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.81(d)

About the Author

HOWARD FRANK MOSHER was the author of thirteen previous books of fiction and nonfiction, including God's Kingdom. He 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. In January 2017, Mosher passed away at the age of seventy-four in Vermont.

Read an Excerpt


Points North

. The Great Earthen Dam at the mouth of the Upper Kingdom River had been obsolete for decades. Originally, the dam had been designed to flood out the hairpin bend in the notch upriver, where the log drives jammed up each spring. Before the dam went in, a small lumberjack or a powder-boy, often Freeman, had been lowered into the notch in a basket to stick a bundle of lighted dynamite into the jam. They'd yank him up fast, with the basket swinging wildly, before the TNT went off and sent the logs flying like so many toothpicks. Freeman had been scared half out of his wits, but overcoming his fear was part of the excitement. There'd been no log drives on the Upper Kingdom now for sixty years. Freeman, the self-appointed dam keeper, was as obsolete as the dam itself, nor would he ever dream of letting his own grandson work as a powder-boy or a jack. He and his grandson were the last two residents of New Canaan, and it wouldn't do to run out the line.

As he'd often told the grandboy, Freeman had seen it all and done it all. Bringing down the log drives with a hundred brawling rivermen in red shirts and spiked boots. Helping build the dam, and the spur rail line from the Common up to Magog, at the head of the lake. During Prohibition Freeman had run booze out of Canada in a battered motor launch. Later he'd worked on the grain freighters coming down the St. Lawrence from the Great Lakes.

"Why did you come back?" the boy asked in an accusing tone.

"Because I was a damn fool, that's why," Freeman said.

This morning Freeman was drawing down the dam. He drew down the dam every fall for no other reason than that his daddy and, before him, his granddaddy had drawn down the dam. Back when the Great Earthen Dam provided power for the Common, there was a point to drawing it down. Freeman's granddaddy and daddy let out the water annually to clear the penstock, clean the turbines, and patch any leaks. The turbines had been pulled out by their blocks and sold for scrap metal years ago. Not long afterward the log drives ended, but if Freeman and the dam were obsolete, they would be obsolete without apology. In the meantime he and the boy supported themselves selling fish in the Common, digging a little ginseng, and guiding downcountry sports.

Just now Freeman was cranking up the gate. He'd inserted his granddaddy's pickpole between two opposite spokes of the bull wheel and was walking around the wheel in a circle, pushing the pole. Nearby the boy fished off the spur line trestle. Watching Freeman walk around the wheel put him in mind of a line from an old number his grandfather played on his granddaddy's violin. The mule went around with its foot on the ground. The boy couldn't get the line out of his head. He'd offered to spell Freeman, but the old man wouldn't hear of it. He was as stubborn as the mule in the fiddle tune.

"Your bob is going," Freeman said.

"That's just a little sunnyfish noodling with the minnie," the boy said. "I ain't studying no panfish this morning."

Freeman suspected that the boy was right. A game fish would run with the minnow, then stop to turn the bait in its mouth, then run again. Freeman had trained the boy to strike when the fish stopped the second time. He couldn't fault the grandson when it came to fishing. Most days the boy outfished his granddaddy two fish to one. Lately the sports they guided had preferred to go out on the lake with the boy. He put them over more fish.

The main trouble with the boy was that he reminded Freeman of himself. A year ago Freeman had caught his grandson slipping the fishing knife he'd given him into his lunch bucket. "What do you propose to do with that scaling blade at school?" he'd said.

The boy shot him a defiant look. "What scaling blade?"

Freeman looked at him steadily. Finally the boy said, "I'm going to panic them young'uns that called me a nigger yesterday."

"That won't be necessary," Freeman said. "As of this morning I'm pulling you."

Freeman said this the way he might announce that he was going out to the garden behind the cabins to pull up a turnip. The boy looked at him as if he were speaking Turkish.

"Out of school," Freeman said. "I'm pulling you out of school. How does that suit you?"

"Fine," the grandboy said. "It suits me just fine."

Freeman calculated that the boy was about fourteen. He looked closer to sixteen, which is what Freeman'd told the truant officer the following week.

"That isn't my understanding, Mr. Freeman," the officer said. He looked at the boy, who was staring back at him in an unsettling manner. "How old are you really, son?"

Before the boy could reply Freeman said to him, "Fetch the deer rifle."

"Do you see that goose decoy over yonder by the island?" Freeman said. "Shoot its head off."

The decoy, which Freeman and the boy had set out the evening before to lure in snow geese, was about two hundred yards away. So fast that, as the truant officer reported an hour later to the school principal, he would not have been able to testify in a court of law that he actually saw the boy do it, Freeman's grandson jerked the gun to his shoulder, sighted in the decoy, and pulled the trigger. The bird's head vanished.

"That's how old he is," Freeman said to the truant officer. "Now get on back to town."

This morning, after he finished raising the gate, Freeman would need the boy for cover. An old man with a boy and a couple of fish poles could still go anywhere in the Kingdom unnoticed, not that there was apt to be anyone to notice them where they were headed. Also Freeman wanted to show the boy his heritage. He wanted to show him once and for all who he was and where he came from.

The boy's red-and-white bobber was bouncing. It dived under, popped back up, disappeared again. The line cut through the water, stopped, slanted off toward the middle of the impoundment, stopped once more. The boy struck. A minute later he heaved a smallmouth bass up onto the trestle. "Supper," the boy said. Freeman resumed cranking up the gate.

At one time the boy had belonged to Freeman's ex-daughter. The former daughter had defected to the Common when her mama finally played out from the terrible isolation of living five miles up the lake from the nearest neighbor with, of all people, Freeman. The girl, for her part, had yoked up with trash from the no-count Lord Hollow branch of the Kinneson family. Several years later the fugitive ex-daughter and the ne'er-do-well lit out on the fair circuit to operate a Tilt-A-Whirl. Just before departing they'd deposited the boy, then about six, on the log stoop of Freeman's cabin. A note pinned to his overalls said, "Over to u."

Freeman had been out on the lake fishing for walleyes on the day they saddled him with the grandboy. When he nosed the launch into the wharf in front of the cabin and cut the motor, the boy said in a sharp voice eerily like Freeman's own, "Who are you?" As though the fishing camp and wharf and launch and dam belonged to him and Freeman was the interloper. Although Freeman had never before laid eyes on the boy, he knew immediately who he was from the resemblance to himself. The censorious voice. The pale blue eyes. The reddish glint in his dark hair, which Freeman's granddaddy claimed came down from an overseer in the woodpile.

"I'm your grandfather," Freeman said.

"You and Santy Claus," the boy said. "I don't got no grandfather."

"You do and I'm him and from now on you'll do as I tell you or else," Freeman said.

"We'll see about that," the boy said.

"We will," Freeman said. "In the meantime, what's your name?" "That's for me to know and you to find out."

Conversing with the boy was like playing a big fish. Sooner or later you had to get him coming your way. After surveying the foundling silently for a few moments, Freeman said, "Do you like to fish?" "I don't mind," the boy said.

"Get in the boat," Freeman said.

Over the next two hours Freeman let the boy catch a bucketful of yellow perch. He showed his grandson how to fillet them on a cedar plank. After supper the boy stared at him bleakly for a full minute. Then he said, "Name W Kinneson."

"What does it stand for?" Freeman said. "The W?"

"It don't stand for nothing," the boy said. "Just W."

Freeman shook his head. Naming a boy with an initial that stood for nothing was exactly what he'd expect the ex-daughter and the Lord Hollow trash to do. Somewhere he remembered hearing the no-count referred to as Bill. "I imagine it stands for William," Freeman said. "How's about I call you Will?"

"You'll call me W or nothing at all," the boy said.

"I don't intend to call you by some heathenish letter."

"Well, then," the boy said. "I reckon we have us a standoff."

With this the battle between them for ascendancy had begun.

* * *

By sunup the dam gate was nearly wide open. The discharge from the impoundment spewed through the gateway into the lake like water shooting out of a gigantic fire hose.

"I wish it was a schoolhouse full of young'uns like them that called me a nigger that we could drownd out this morning," the boy said. "Wouldn't they squeak, though."

"That puts me in mind of my granddaddy's granddaddy," Freeman said. "Have I told you about him?"

"No more than a hundred times," the boy said. "We can forgo that yarn today if it's all the same."

Forgoing one thing or another if it was all the same was an expression that the boy had picked up from his grandfather.

"It isn't any yarn," Freeman said. "It's true history. My granddaddy's granddaddy, Running Tobe, was a slave in the Dominion of Old Virginy. When he was fifteen, Tobe ran north. They put the dogs on him, sent the slave catchers after him. The dogs and the slave catchers never came back."

Freeman looked at the boy to make sure he understood the significance of the dogs and slave catchers failing to return to Old Virginy. "When he got to the Common, Tobe put himself to school. He sat on the primer bench with the little'uns and learned to read. Then he came up here and founded New Canaan."

"Good for him," the boy said. Freeman knew he was trying to put as much distance between himself and Running Tobe as possible. He was about to remind his grandson that Tobe was his direct blooded ancestor when the boy changed the subject. "You didn't say nothing about drawing down no dam this morning. You said we was going to dig up some dead people. I don't see no dead people."

Freeman suspected that the boy was trying to muster courage for what lay ahead. He said, "You'll do fine. You can help or watch or go fishing. This is mainly between me and them." "Them" was how Freeman referred to his people.

"I reckon I'll help. You'll be all in after five minutes, same as you are now. Say, can I keep a skull? To set up over the fireplace?"

Freeman smiled to himself. Keeping a skull to prove his courage by was just what Freeman would have wanted to do at his age. Freeman bent back over the pickpole and resumed circling the bull wheel like the mule in the song. The boy jumped from the railroad trestle onto the catwalk of the dam, something Freeman had repeatedly told him not to do. "Leave go of that pole before you bust a gut," he told his grandfather. He shouldered Freeman aside and took his place. A few months ago Freeman had quit wrestling with the boy. Over the past year he'd become too much for Freeman to handle and, Freeman suspected, was letting him win. The gate thunked into the top of its framework. It was as high as it went.

The 7:03 southbound came into sight on the spur track. As it approached the trestle it whistled twice to say good morning. Freeman and the boy waved. "One of these days I'm going to hop onto that train and never look back," the boy said.

"We can only hope so," Freeman said.

"Let's get a move on it," the boy said when the train had passed. Freeman knew he was still working on his courage.

"They ain't going anywhere," Freeman said. "Our people."

"Not ours. Yours."

Temporarily in ascendance, the boy was already standing in the skiff. Freeman handed down the pickax and two shovels and his grandfather's logrolling peavey. "Get up in the bow," he told the boy. "I'll row."

"That's a very poor idea," the boy said. "Green around the gills as you are." Freeman was forever chiding his grandson that something he was fixing to do was a very poor idea. Green around the gills or not, Freeman enjoyed rowing a boat and intended to do so this morning, in the process regaining, however briefly, ascendancy over his grandson. Unlike raising a boy, rowing produced immediate and predictable results. Also rowing appealed to Freeman's temperament. You pulled the oars forward and the boat went backward.

They glided up the diminished impoundment past the stark white barkless trunks of drowned-out trees exposed by the receding water. The flooded-out shoreline forest stood silent — the bleached skeletons of some lost race of giants. As they entered the notch where the log drives had jammed, they could see the dark high-water marks on the cliffs overhead, from which Freeman had long ago been lowered in a basket. To the boy it appeared as though the cliffs were rising out of the water. Freeman thought of the Plimsoll lines on the grain freighters on which he'd traveled the world. Here in the notch there was a little current. Freeman feathered the oars to hold the skiff in place. "Look down," he said.

The boy peered over the side of the skiff. By degrees he made out, wavering in the green depths of the river, the fire-blackened shells of the stone houses and church of New Canaan. "My granddaddy was just a shaver when the Klan came riding," Freeman said. "Somehow he got away and hid out in the old logging camp upriver. The rest, nearly one hundred of them, were trapped inside the church."

For once the boy had nothing to say. "I've always suspicioned," Freeman told him, "that the true purpose of the dam was to put this out of sight and mind."

By then the boy had recovered himself. He spat onto the surface of the river and said, "He stopped too soon, I reckon. Running Tobe. He didn't run far enough."

"It's a shame you wasn't here to advise him," Freeman said.

"I'd have knowed better than to put down stakes in this hellhole," the boy said.

Freeman ran the bow of the skiff up onto a wet sandbar beside the narrowing river. A couple of dozen granite grave markers stood clustered nearby, Freeman and the boy got out of the skiff and walked through the stones. Aaron. Moses. Jincy. Orange. Tobias. Freeman said, "My granddaddy that escaped the fire told me his granddaddy, Running Tobe, said New Canaan wasn't home until they started burying their people here. All these graves date back before the fire. There wasn't enough left of the people inside the church to bury.

"These graves," Freeman continued, "are links between us and them. You may not think they're your people but they are. You wouldn't be here without them."

"Are we going to move them to dry ground or not?" the boy said.

"We are," Freeman said. But instead of going to the skiff for the shovels and pickax he sat down with his back against Tobe's marker.

"What is it?" the boy said.

"Listen to me" Freeman said. "I want you to —"

The boy never learned what his grandfather wanted him to do. The old man had sagged down against Tobe's stone. His chin rested on his chest. His eyes were still partly open and he was frowning as if in disapproval of some new similarity to himself that he'd just perceived in his grandson. At first the boy couldn't be sure. "You, sir," he said loudly near Freeman's ear.

The grandson half-expected a sour reply but for once the old man held his tongue.

"There," the boy said.

He went to the skiff and returned with the pickax and a long-handled shovel. Immediately he set to work. At first the soil was moist and sandy. Then hard bluish clay that required the pick. Once the boy glanced at his grandfather. The old man looked as though he was about to proclaim that all this was a very poor idea. Freeman was no midget but with the assistance of the peavey hook the boy rolled him over into the open grave. Filling it in was the work of half an hour.

The boy wrestled the skiff down over the sandbar to the river and got in and began to row, taking care to stay in mid-channel. Now the skeletal trees on the shorelines made him think of the remains of so many Negroes burned and hanged and whipped to death.

The boy scraped the skiff onto the exposed mud flats at the north end of the dam. He climbed up to the catwalk. There was the bull wheel with the pike impaled between its spokes. The gate creaked in its framework as the boy cranked it down. The mule went around with its foot on the ground. The day seemed to be moving backward.

Five miles away at the foot of the lake the evening northbound whistled. The boy got his fishing knife out of his tackle box in case of tramps. He got the roll of bills out of the old man's McGinty jar. There was the paper they'd pinned to his shirt years ago. He left the paper in the jar.

The northbound was even shorter than usual. A snub-nosed diesel. Three empty pulp cars. Two boxcars. A caboose. It crept out onto the trestle. The door of one of the cars was partway open. The boy trotted alongside it but just before swinging aboard he changed his mind and a minute later the train was picking up speed as it headed north between the mountains and the lake.


Excerpted from "Points North"
by .
Copyright © 2018 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Points North 1

2. Where Is Don Quixote? 13

3. Good Sam Merryton 25

4. Sisters 52

5. Friendship Indiana 67

6. Kingdom of Heaven 75

7. Lonely Hearts 101

8. Dispossessed 120

9. What Pliny Knew 140

10. The Songbirds of Vermont 181

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