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Phillis Mosher Talks About Her Husband's Final Novel


Published December 20, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 20, 2017 at 10:11 a.m.

Phillis Mosher - DON WHIPPLE
  • Don Whipple
  • Phillis Mosher

At Christmastime last year, George Witte received a manuscript at his publishing house in New York City. It was a collection of stories by Howard Frank Mosher, an Irasburg, Vt., author who created, over nearly half a century, a body of work centering on the place he named Kingdom County and the family he called Kinneson.

"I remember thinking, What a lovely holiday gift," said Witte, editor in chief of St. Martin's Press. "And I read Points North, and I loved it."

When he returned to work after the holiday break, Witte brought up Mosher's book at an editorial meeting and said he'd like to buy it. He had no idea at the time that Mosher was gravely ill with lung cancer or that the author had completed Points North in the last weeks of his life.

Mosher died on January 29, 2017, at age 74. He had been too sick to talk to his editor but was fully aware that Points North would be published. With no time to rush the book to print before Mosher's death, Witte resolved to mark the one-year anniversary of the author's passing with the book's release on January 23, 2018.

Points North is Mosher's 14th book and the second to be published by St. Martin's — the first was his novel God's Kingdom two years ago. "I was so honored to receive God's Kingdom and then publish it," Witte said. "I kind of approached it as I'd be publishing Howard for a long time. And I think, if he had lived, we would've."

The forthcoming volume is a set of stories that are linked by characters who will be familiar to Mosher's readers. These include, most notably, the Kinneson brothers: Charlie, an attorney and judge, and Jim, a writer and newspaper editor, along with multiple generations of their kin. They belong to a family that is contemplative and engaged in the world — and has an eccentric streak. Their ancestors helped settle Kingdom County and later harbored fugitive slaves. The Kinnesons know their way around trout streams, baseball diamonds, local lore and moral dilemmas.

The publication of Points North "meant everything to Howard," said Phillis Mosher, his wife of 52 years. "I'm so happy for him. He was proud of the book. He did what he wanted to do. If you can say that, that's a good thing."

Phillis helped see the book through to publication, proofreading the galleys and keeping an eye out for "awkward phrases." She said she tried to "channel Howard." As the first reader of her husband's works, Phillis had decades of practice in a role she cherished.

"I was always so grateful, because it's such a solitary profession, that he could include me in [it]," she said.

Phillis is now working to promote Points North, including keeping up Mosher's newsletter Letters From Kingdom County and posting book updates and events on social media. "I can't write a grocery list!" she said. "What am I doing?"

Several book events are scheduled for early next year, kicking off what Phillis has dubbed Points North: The Great (Vicarious) American Book Tour. They include a launch on January 23 at Hazen Union School in Hardwick, where Mosher's brother, Terry, will read the book's first story; and a reading on February 8 at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier with the Moshers' son, Jake, and novelists Chris Bohjalian and Richard Russo. Witte also plans to attend the Montpelier event.

The publication of Points North and corresponding events are, for Phillis, "a way to keep Howard a little longer."

The two met in 10th grade at Cato-Meridian High School in Cato, N.Y., where Howard's family moved after his childhood in the Catskills. He went to Hamilton College on a basketball scholarship but left after his freshman year, transferring to Syracuse University, where Phillis was a student.

"He didn't pledge his undying love right then," she said. "But I think he secretly did."

They married after college, on August 19, 1964, and moved to the Northeast Kingdom that very day to take teaching jobs at Orleans High School (which later became Lake Region Union High School). It was nighttime when they arrived in Orleans, where they had rented a second-floor apartment in a small house by the mill.

"Welcome home!" their landlady called out the window when the Moshers pulled into the driveway. Howard was 22; Phillis was 21.

Howard taught for a few years before turning his attention to writing fiction. Phillis was an educator — a teacher and a guidance counselor — until her retirement in 2010. She worked for 30 years at Coventry Village School, primarily teaching middle school science and math.

In their big white house off the town green in Irasburg, the Moshers raised their kids — Jake, now 45 and a photographer and writer in Montana, and Annie, 43, a singer-songwriter in Nashville.

Mosher worked at the dining room table, where east-facing windows overlook the rose garden he tended in summers. In the hills beyond are the villages and streams, the backwoods and barrooms, that became the settings for Mosher's stories — both the ones he discovered and the ones he invented.

"In my opinion, he was created to write, and he would've found a way," Phillis said of her husband. "Maybe I was created to give him that way, I don't know."

A year ago, after he learned he had an aggressive form of lung cancer, Howard sat at that table and worked steadily for about two weeks, day and night, Phillis said. He wrote, as he always had, in longhand on yellow legal pads, working to finish Points North while he had the stamina.

"He waits until it's as close to perfect as he can before he sends the manuscript out," Phillis explained.

His revisions and fine-tuning last December focused on a character named Pliny Templeton, she said. Templeton has appeared in several of Mosher's books, starting with his 1989 novel Stranger in the Kingdom.

Templeton was a scholar, an educator and the author of a book titled Ecclesiastical, Natural, Political, and Social History of Kingdom County. A black man and a former slave, he built a school that educated hundreds of Kingdom County children.

"Pliny plagued him forever," Phillis said. "Howard wanted his story. It was hard because Howard wasn't a slave, and he wasn't black, and he wanted to be respectful of those things. But he wanted people to know — and he wanted to know — Pliny's story."

A key aspect of Templeton's story is his undying love for a woman named Lake Ponchartrain and his search for her — a search that is carried on by others long after Templeton's death.

In the dedication of Points North, Mosher wrote: "To Phillis, aka Lake."

Phillis' relation to the female characters in Mosher's books, however, is not limited to Lake.

"The love interest in all of his books was based on me," Phillis said. "Not the character, but the way the man felt about the woman." She paused and added: "The man was obviously a saint."

Points North by Howard Frank Mosher, St. Martin's Press, 208 pages, $25.99. Readings: January 23, 7 p.m., hosted by Galaxy Bookshop at Hazen Union School in Hardwick; January 30, 5:30 p.m., at Phoenix Books in Burlington and Rutland; and February 8, 5 p.m., at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Mosher's Kingdom"

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