From a Cabin in Norwich, School Principal Ken Cadow Wrote a Young Adult Novel Set in Vermont That’s Up for a National Book Award | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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From a Cabin in Norwich, School Principal Ken Cadow Wrote a Young Adult Novel Set in Vermont That’s Up for a National Book Award


Published November 14, 2023 at 4:52 p.m.
Updated November 22, 2023 at 10:11 a.m.

Ken Cadow and his 2-year-old dog, Quinnie - JUSTIN CASH
  • Justin Cash
  • Ken Cadow and his 2-year-old dog, Quinnie

Climb for a few minutes up a densely wooded hill behind Ken Cadow's house in Norwich, and you'll find a shingled cabin the size of a cozy bedroom. Inside, a faded red easy chair with threadbare arms sits alongside an ice-hut stove procured for $35 on eBay. A pair of wool clogs rests on a dingy, tan bath mat.

Cadow's weathered wood desktop, mounted on a vintage sewing-table base scavenged from the town dump, is positioned squarely before a picture window that offers a diorama-like view of moss-covered hardwoods, conifers and ferns sprouting from a crunchy carpet of fallen leaves. A coatrack on the wall bears a message of pluck: "Talent is overrated. Skill is acquired."

Cadow, 59, has spent hundreds of hours in this cabin, which he built in 1999, sans electricity or internet, in a determined pursuit: outlining, writing and revising a book about a Vermont teen named Ian, who meets hardship with grit, humor, resilience and the unflinching companionship of a huge Irish wolfhound-mastiff mix named Gather.

Gather is also the name of Cadow's newly released young adult novel, which is informed by the insights and empathy Cadow has cultivated through 20 years of working with middle and high school students, as a teacher and administrator in rural Vermont. He is currently coprincipal of Oxbow High School in Bradford, helping to oversee around 400 students.

Those countless days Cadow spent pecking away on his laptop in predawn darkness have paid off. On October 3, the same day that Gather was released, he was named one of five finalists for the prestigious National Book Award in young people's literature, chosen by a panel of five judges from 348 publisher-selected submissions. Making the short list of finalists is a huge achievement and a possible launchpad for literary stardom. It is rarer still for a first-time novelist, and one who's pushing 60.

  • Justin Cash
  • Ken Cadow

Cadow's turn as a National Book Award finalist is the latest plot twist in a long working life already rich with zigs and zags: U.S. Navy sailor, general store proprietor, grad student, studio artist, teacher and principal. Yet with a mop of dark hair atop a lanky frame and a penchant for wholesome colloquialisms such as "Oh, boy," Cadow projects a youthful presence that hints at the curious, energetic kid he once was.

Cadow will find out if he wins the National Book Award on November 15, at a swanky ceremony in New York City that will feature some of the country's best writers, along with host LeVar Burton and special guest Oprah Winfrey. After the event, he'll jet down to Florida for the Miami Book Fair, where he'll be on a panel with fellow finalists.

In September, when Cadow learned from his agent and editor by email that he'd made the "long list" of 10 authors up for the award, he was in a school administrator's meeting and didn't quite grasp the magnitude of the honor.

"Wowie! Thanks," he typed back, before closing his computer to attend to his day job.

Though Cadow has had time to digest the news and, later, that of his short-list status, he remains focused on managing the down-to-earth realities of a school filled with teenagers. When teachers wanted to recognize his accomplishment during a school assembly last month, he politely said no.

Being the center of attention doesn't come naturally to Cadow. "I'm not great at that," he said.

Writing, though — that's another story.

From Notion to Novel

Cadow's 2-year-old dog, Quinnie - JUSTIN CASH
  • Justin Cash
  • Cadow's 2-year-old dog, Quinnie

Cadow came up with the idea for Gather more than two decades ago as a newcomer to Vermont and father of three young children. While pursuing his master's degree in creative writing at Dartmouth College, he became fascinated by the hunting culture in his new hometown of Norwich, among the wealthiest in Vermont, and the ways in which that pastime was dying out as developers and well-to-do newcomers bought up land and posted "No Trespassing" signs.

As part of his thesis, Cadow gathered material for an oral history project, spending time in hunting camps with groups of sons, fathers and grandfathers and listening to their conversations. Though not a hunter himself, Cadow was struck by their deep understanding of nature and respect for it, as well as their rich discussions about family traditions rooted in the woods, free from technology and workaday problems.

Around that time, he scribbled a bare-bones plot for a young adult novel on a sheet of loose-leaf paper: "Boy who loves to hunt meets girl. Girl has just moved to town. Girl's family has enough funds to buy lots of land. Girl's family puts up 'No Trespassing' signs."

Cadow put the outline aside for years while he continued to work on other writing projects. In 2010, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published his picture book, Alfie Runs Away, based on a true story from his own family of a little boy whose mom helps him pack his belongings when he decides to leave home.

Then, in November 2019, he was in his cabin reworking an essay about his old border collie Pompy's animal-chasing habits when, as he put it, the character of Ian appeared on the page. By that time, Cadow had years of experience as a teacher at Thetford Academy and an administrator at Randolph Union High School.

"I found myself looking out from under the dripping hood of his old rain jacket, across a parking lot at some school," Cadow told family and friends at a book launch party at the Norwich Inn last month. "I didn't know his name until one of his teachers — now known as 'The Sharpe' — came out of the glass entryway into the rain."

"'Ian,' she said, 'What are you doing? Come inside.' And I went along for the journey," Cadow recalled.

That scene, which establishes school as a place of both alienation and refuge for Ian, would become the second chapter of Gather.

Ian, the narrator of the novel, takes readers through challenging, humorous and harrowing moments over five months of his life. Books geared to young people often unfold chronologically, so as not to confuse the reader, but Gather jumps around in time, brimming with asides and non sequiturs.

"I was just giving in to Ian's way of telling," Cadow said.

Ian is not based on any one teenager Cadow has known. Rather, the character is an amalgamation of many students encountered during a long career in education.

Inside the cabin - JUSTIN CASH
  • Justin Cash
  • Inside the cabin

Ian is poor and white. He lives on an old farmstead, the bulk of which had been sold off to more affluent folks years before. His dad has left town. His mom, who started abusing opioids after injuring her back at work, struggles to pay the bills and hold down a job.

Ian knows how to fix a small engine, harvest a Christmas tree from the woods and track deer, but he doesn't care much about the stuff of school: "goddamn algebra two," "poets you never heard of" and "how to write a lab report." Yet school, and the people within it, provide Ian with much-needed stability and support as his life falls apart.

To capture the perspective of someone four decades younger, Cadow self-edited by reading everything aloud, taking special care not to let his own voice creep into the story. One example, he said, was a passage in which Ian expounds on how important Gather, the dog, is to him.

"That's me writing for the adults who are going to be reading this book," Cadow remembered thinking after reading it. He replaced that section with just one line: "I love that frigging dog."

When COVID-19 shuttered Vermont school buildings in March 2020, spurring others to nurture sourdough starters or assemble thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles, Cadow wrote.

Every weekday, he'd wake at 4 a.m. and head to the cabin, a lantern lighting his way. He got into the rhythm of writing for three and a half hours each morning before logging on to remote school from his house. On weekends, he'd write for six- or seven-hour stretches. Early on, Cadow shared the details of the book with his wife of 30 years, Lisa, a clinical mental health counselor and former bookseller, who provided encouragement and patience as her husband devoted many of his waking hours to writing.

As he got further along, Cadow called on friends, colleagues, his now-adult kids and other family members to make sure the manuscript rang true. His eldest sister, Karen LeRoy, formerly a dairy farmer and academic tutor in Whiting, read eight versions.

LeRoy said she was moved to tears the first time because Ian reminded her of some of the rural kids she'd tutored.

"I thought it was in the same category with Catcher in the Rye, The Day No Pigs Would Die, My Side of the Mountain," LeRoy recalled. "A classic book that just would get into your heart."

In July 2020, Cadow submitted a draft to his agent, Ginger Knowlton, of the New York City-based literary agency Curtis Brown Ltd., whom he'd convinced to represent him a decade earlier.

But after three months, Cadow still hadn't heard back from Knowlton. He reached out to see if she'd had a chance to read it.

"I didn't get really far into it, to be honest," he remembered her saying.

It turned out that Cadow had sent Knowlton the wrong version of the manuscript, one that included many of his own notes sprinkled throughout. Once that snafu was cleared up, Knowlton and her assistant gave Cadow feedback on a clean copy and he began revising, a process that took more than a year.

Cadow wrote the first draft in a style he described as "first-person rural," trying to capture the speech patterns of Vermont's farm country. But Knowlton and others convinced him to tone down the language so that the story itself could take center stage.

In late October 2021, the same day Cadow and two of his children buried Pompy on the hillside of their home, he resubmitted Gather. Knowlton let him know in December that she loved it. "Ken, you've really found the voice for this story," she told him.

Four months later, Candlewick Press, a leading children's book publisher, acquired the book.

Katie Cunningham, Cadow's editor at Candlewick, said that once she started reading it, she couldn't stop thinking about Ian's singular voice and the unusual structure of the story, which she likened to a dog circling before it lays down.

Cunningham, who began chemotherapy for ovarian cancer soon after getting the book, said editing it was one of the only work-related things she cared about at the time.

"Working on it, for me, felt like the ultimate hopeful act," Cunningham said.

Cadow spent months on another round of revisions and sent back the manuscript on July 1, 2022, the same day he officially became coprincipal of Oxbow High School.

A Sense of Relevance

  • Justin Cash
  • Ken Cadow

Much like the plot of Gather, Cadow's life has followed a path that is anything but linear.

The youngest of seven siblings, two of whom died in childhood, Cadow spent his childhood in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and North Smithfield, R.I., where his father worked at IBM.

In elementary school, Cadow struggled with reading but got extra help and went on to become an avid, if slow, reader who was inspired to explore the world around him by the characters he encountered on the page.

He tolerated school but — like Ian — was more excited about the adventures he found outside of it. For Cadow, that included making bookcases and bird feeders in the woodshop with his dad, building trails and forts in the woods, and exploring the salt marshes and scrublands of Block Island, R.I., where his family had a summer home.

LeRoy, Cadow's older sister by 13 years, remembers him as the most outgoing of all the siblings, a kid prone to start conversations with total strangers, even as a preschooler.

"He was kind of fearless," LeRoy said. "He wasn't foolhardy. But he was always interested in talking to people and hearing their stories."

He was also a budding naturalist, she said: "Wherever we lived, he would know the birds, and he would know the rocks, and he would know the trees."

After graduating from high school, Cadow attended Rhode Island College, where he majored in English and computer science, thinking he could one day edit technical manuals, as his dad did toward the end of his IBM career. In the late 1980s, Cadow spent four years in the Navy, followed by a stint in the Naval Reserve.

Later, Cadow and his wife, Lisa, ran a general store on Block Island, his childhood stomping grounds. It was a job that gave him "such a clear role in the community," he said. But the long hours left him with little time to spend with his young children. In 1997, the family decided to settle in Vermont, where Cadow's parents and two of his sisters already lived.

Once in Norwich, Cadow struggled to find a role in his new community. During a bike ride, he came upon Thetford Academy, one of four historic independent secondary schools in Vermont serving public school students from surrounding towns. Struck by the school's beauty, he rode up and asked a woman outside how he could get on the list of substitute teachers. She happened to be the head of the school. Thus began Cadow's career in education.

Cadow taught at Thetford for a decade, moving from substitute to full-time teacher of art and English. In the process, he found a like-minded group of colleagues and a newfound sense of belonging.

He went on to enroll in the principal-preparation program at the Upper Valley Educators Institute in Lebanon, N.H., and was placed in a yearlong internship at Randolph Union High School. He ended up staying at the school for a decade.

His work at Randolph centered on making learning relevant and accessible to students, a focus he has maintained at Oxbow High School since becoming coprincipal last year.

"I don't like when we talk about 'school' and we talk about 'the real world,'" Cadow said. "Schools are the real world."

At Randolph, he created "deployed classrooms" to acquaint a range of students — from kids interested in studying environmental engineering in college to those who wanted to work in construction — with local workplaces and practical applications of subjects such as math and science. In a water-management elective, teens took field trips to a mine, a dam and a wastewater treatment plant.

For middle school students, Cadow created a replacement for traditional shop and home economics classes. He gave students dumpster-diving passes so they could scavenge behind the school for materials to build generator-powered windmills.

Former Randolph Union principal Elijah Hawkes said Cadow's leadership helped lift the high school graduation rate from 76 to 95 percent in six years.

"He's able to see the humanity and the worth in so many different people and professions," Hawkes said.

That sensibility has carried over to the respect he shows for his characters, according to Cunningham, the book's editor.

She recalled how Cadow pushed back on describing Ian's mom as "addicted to opioids" in promotional copy for the book, saying he felt her character "deserved more nuance and compassion" than such a label conveyed.

Cadow's respect for Ian, and real-life kids like him, also shines through in Gather, she said. Cadow has "extended a hand to all of these young people who feel like nobody sees them," Cunningham said. "Ken is just waving his arms and saying, 'I see you, and I think you're great.'"

Mirrors and Windows

  • Justin Cash
  • Ken Cadow

There's a well-known belief in the world of education that books can act as mirrors that reflect a reader's own life and as windows that allow a peek into the lives of others. Gather is well positioned to be both.

Oxbow High School English teacher Ben Arendsee has begun teaching the book in two of his classes and sees it as a possible antidote to the tendency of rural Vermont teens to idealize the far-off places they see in popular media and to diminish their own surroundings. Gather is a rare young adult novel that shines light on the working-class life many of his students are living.

Though it's taken a couple of chapters for the Oxbow students to get used to the book's nonlinear structure, Arendsee said they are beginning to see reflections of their own experiences, such as the threat of losing their home or a parent being laid off.

Many also think it's pretty cool that their principal is a published author.

Lucinda Walker, director of the Norwich Public Library, said the book's depiction of Vermont as a place where struggle and pain coexist with natural beauty is likely to be eye-opening to those from elsewhere who hold a romanticized idea of the state.

"I'm amazed that sometimes people forget that real life exists here — and real life isn't always beautiful," Walker said.

Cadow jokes that Gather isn't likely to be promoted by the Vermont tourism department. But he hopes it will be read widely by teens in and outside of the state — and adults, too.

In Cadow's hometown of 3,600 residents, the book is in heavy demand at the library and selling well at the Norwich Bookstore. He's stopped by several times to sign copies.

"I'm not a part of the literary world, but I'm just so excited for my friend," said Michael Lyons, a longtime family physician in Norwich who advised Cadow about sections of the story that deal with opioid use.

One of the scenes in Gather depicts Ian and his Gramps waiting in darkness at deer camp for a hunter's moon to appear through a hole in the clouds. But before they see it, the pair is treated to something even more breathtaking: "an orange meteor, trailing sparks, like somebody just smacked a bright bed of coals in the sky."

The scene is a testament to the grand rewards that patience and persistence sometimes bring. It's a lesson that Cadow, through hundreds of hours of toil in a tiny cabin in the trees, is learning, too.

An Excerpt from Gather

Gather  - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Gather

So, something I have to say is about the word gather. It means a lot of things, like gathering food. Gathering your thoughts. When somebody who listens, somebody like The Sharpe, when she asks you what it's like to grow up the way you're growing up, you gather together all these parts of your life and all these stories of things from way before, things that get mixed up with what's happening right then. Those stories don't come out like a goddam timeline.

They come out like compost. All the leaves, the coffee grounds, fireplace ashes, apple cores, tea bags, onion skins, eggshells, corn husks, potato peels, everything that turned to dirt at one time or another, doesn't matter when, it belongs with whatever you've got growing out of it right there in front of you. Doesn't matter, either, if you're talking about sugar snap peas, tomatoes, pumpkins, or weeds. You can't go pulling all the dirt away from the roots, trying to put it in some kind of order so you can understand it your way. You kill it if you do that.

Stories we tell come out like the way you walk the woods if you want to know it — zigzagging, doubling back, maybe tripling, sometimes enough to find out the parts you know the least about are the parts closest to home. You don't just make some frigging beeline to some hill like you're trying to get your steps in. I just don't understand people like that. I don't think they're from around here.

But I feel like you need to understand this. Our stories from around here come out like the way we keep our work shed: you go in there, see what you have lying around, some of it being old as hell, some of it being stuff you might even have had the money to buy for yourself. You move something, you find something else. You brush it off a little, then you use it or set it back down. But you need it all to piece together how things come to be the way they are now, how you come to be who you are.

And when things go to hell in your own life, the word gather means something else all over again. Because there's a lot of good people, some who you know, some who you only just met. And the ones who matter, they listen. They gather on your side and at least they try to help you, even if it might not all work out. I know that for a fact.

All that being said, I am definitely getting ahead of myself here. Right then, I was just goddam glad to have that dog.

GATHER. Copyright © 2023 by Kenneth M. Cadow. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Gathering Praise | From a cabin in Norwich, school principal Ken Cadow wrote a young adult novel set in Vermont that's winning notice"

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