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Hold Nothing Back

Howard Frank Mosher to read from his new novel at Hallwalls on April 27

Howard Frank Mosher has lived for decades in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Out of the land and people there, his imagination has projected a series of books, beginning with Disappearances in 1977. The characters and events he presents are magical and mythical; the territory becomes almost a parallel universe in contrast to our daily lives, yet it is filled with insight into what we are. His most recent book, seven years in the making, Walking to Gatlinburg, begins in the Kingdom but moves down the Appalachian chain as young Morgan Kinneson sets out on foot in 1864 to search for his missing older brother, Pilgrim. Morgan cannot accept that his brother, a doctor for the Union army, is dead. As he searches for Pilgrim, so he is sought—by as evil a band of men as any we might imagine.

Violence and evil are persistent themes for Mosher. He calls Walking to Gatlinburg an “anti-violence” book, yet even the most admirable characters in this and all of his work yield to violence. After all, pursued as he is, how would Morgan Kinneson survive without fighting back? In an interview Mosher accepted the suggestion that, in writing about the Civil War period, he located the fountainhead of violence in later America, and noted that Morgan would, because of it, eventually face his greatest challenge. Asked if evil is innate in Morgan’s pursuers and in people in general, he said, “It’s hard to think it’s not…It is a very real and innate force in the world of my books.” But he characterizes himself as a romantic writer; and in North Country (a memoir of traveling the length of our northern border), he wrote, “I’m determined to make this intensely personal journey one of exuberance and affirmation rather than lament and nostalgia.” Affirmation or not, he certainly sees his civilization in decline.

In Walking to Gatlinburg, Morgan travels along the Underground Railway and meets, along with violence and anarchy, ghosts, visions, seemingly out-of-place animals (such as the elephant, Caliph, who carries him to many places), etc. The book skates on the border of the surreal. In fact, he accepts designation as a “magic realist,” having been enabled to complete Disappearances in part because of the influence of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Salman Rushdie, in last week’s Babel presentation, said that many readers get the “magical” and miss the “realist,” but magic is certainly a qualifier. Mosher’s realism is commonly in opposition to perceived “fact,” much, he says, as Mark Twain never let facts get in the way of truth. Nor does he worry about consistency, finding Faulkner, whom he much admires, “consistently inconsistent.”

Big Night!

Just Buffalo's multimedia literary series wraps up season

Just Buffalo presents Big Night: Ecopoetics Season Finale on Saturday, April 24. The program will feature poetry from Jonathan Skinner, art by Julian Montague, and sound and video installations by Leah Rico.

Skinner is founder and editor of ecopoetics, a journal that features the creative connections between writing and ecology. Skinner’s poetry collections include With Naked Foot and Political Cactus Poems.

Montague explores the features of the environment through drawing, photography, and other media. He is best known for The Stray Shopping Cart Project, which introduced a classification system for stray shopping carts, published as a book in 2006. His art has been showcased at the Burchfield-Penny Art Center, at at New York’s Art in General and Black & White Gallery.

Rico produces audio and performance art that creates and explores language and identity and the acoustic forms and rituals that create and define communities.

As always, chef amd BlazeVOX publisher Geoffrey Gatza will provide food. This will be the last of the Big Night series until September. This event is free to Just Buffalo members and $5 at the door for everyone else.

samantha mcdonnell

Mosher like to talk of “the mysterious way characters come to authors.” Although his books are peopled by figures recognizable in his Northeast Kingdom, and although he admits that some of even the most violent of the characters have models in his own family history, the beautiful men and women of his books are pure products of imagination. Thinking of these people and of his determination to affirm, I asked if the courage, love, and humor he finds in his protagonists might be redemptive. He thought it possible, but admits that their “opportunities are very restricted.” Walking to Gatlinburg, summarizes and deepens what he has witnessed in the destruction of forests, farms, family industries and more, yet his people fight back. In fact, in North Country, he writes:

Inherent in their endless battles with the weather, the sea, the rivers, the forests, and outside regulations and markets and bureaucratic decisions is an ongoing dramatic conflict that seems to have characterized life in the North Country for the past two centuries. What’s more, it seems to me that most of the North Country natives I’ve met enjoy, even relish, this conflict.

In many ways, despite his suffering, Morgan Kinneson relishes the conflict. Mosher has elsewhere observed that, “with his stubborn independent-mindedness, [he] takes ‘Kingdom County’ with him wherever he goes.”

Mosher expresses sorrow that today’s anarchy might—although he hoped not—approach that depicted in all of the places Morgan visits, will approach it if people don’t listen to one another. He added that the hostility he sees causes even viewing 60 seconds of FOX News to disturb him deeply.

Mosher says he has always emphasized the mystery of his craft. “If you ever hear a writer tell you that he or she in any way knows what he or she is doing, that’s the biggest fib in the history of the world,” he says. He tells a story about visiting a Southern country music bar many years ago to hear a fresh young singer. Listening intently was a former songwriter, long since sunk into alcoholism. When the woman finished, the old man summoned her to his table to give her advice: “Don’t never hold nothin’ back.” When, in the process of reducing the 1,100 pages of his early draft of Walking to Gatlinburg, he suggested to his wife that he might tone down the violence of the book, she reminded him of that scene, reminded him that three-quarters of a million men died in the war through which Morgan journeys. So he decided to “hold nothin’ back.”

Among the writers Mosher admires are Annie Proulx, Richard Russo, Cormac McCarthy, William Gay, and Ivan Doig, along with Thoreau and Twain and Faulkner. Proulx and Russo, in particular, he says, owe their beginnings as writers to independent bookstores. Mosher is on a nationwide tour right now (at this writing in Montana). He has made other book tours, always to the independents, and contends that they must be nurtured if the book is to survive. One of his favorite stores is Talking Leaves, so Mosher will be in Buffalo to read from and discuss Walking to Gatlinburg on April 27 at Hallwalls at Babeville. He will also present a slide-show, “Transforming History into Fiction: the Story of a Born Liar.” His next book, entitled The Great American Book Tour, will chronicle his travels.

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