Novels about the loss of Vermont’s bucolic landscape abound, but Wilmington writer Laura C. Stevenson’s first adult novel, Return in Kind, tells the story from an unusual point of view: that of those who knew the genteel world of southern Vermont’s academic landed gentry.
In the postwar boom of the ’50s — “academia’s Golden Age,” as one character dubs it — professors could afford to buy up failing hill farms for their summer retreats. Their new pastoral digs allowed them to feel connected to the land while they preserved its beauty. And the setting only enhanced their Boston Brahmin-esque world of formal social teas and straightforward literary critique.
That world has largely disappeared by the start of Return in Kind, which takes place sometime in the late 20th century — the era of the Walkman, in any case. Southern Vermont is fast succumbing to second-home construction, intellectual inquiry has turned down the obfuscating path of poststructuralism, and those with graduate degrees who can find jobs at all — let alone buy land — are the exception.
When the book opens, a pillar of the old world, Letty Hendrickson, has just died from cancer at 61. Though she was no academic, Letty was a powerful trustee at Mather College, just over the border in Massachusetts, which was founded by her legal guardian, Nathaniel Brantford.
It turns out Letty left almost everything to the college she adored and only one thing to her husband, Joel: the Ward Place, an old farmhouse on 150 lakefront acres in fictional Draper, Vt. — somewhere near Bennington — which she never even mentioned she owned. What was her relation to this house, and why did she keep its existence a secret?
The issue is especially painful for Joel, who teaches literature at Mather. The “long-suffering” spouse, as his colleagues see him, endured a childless marriage to a woman who was not his soul mate partly in deference to her guardian, who recruited him to the college in the first place. Nathaniel never mentioned the Ward Place, either.
But middle-aged Eleanor Randall Klimowski lives next door to it and knew the last Wards before they died. Her house — purchased by her father, who was among the original academic gentry — becomes Joel’s base for exploring his inheritance. When he learns that Eleanor’s brother just sold his half of the Randall property to developers for a massive profit, Joel begins to see his own land in a different light.
As she watches excavators uproot her maple grove, Eleanor experiences an even greater loss: her hearing. Deafness is usurping her greatest talents, which are her gift for smoothing over social awkwardness in company and her instinct for teaching. She was booted some time ago from her career as a college professor and now supports herself by cleaning homes and taking in boarders such as Joel. Now, almost everything sounds like “mxmx,” as Stevenson writes it, and she must rely more and more on her ability to lip-read.
Many of Stevenson’s most moving passages convey how exhausting it is for the hearing impaired to participate in the simplest social interaction: the required agreeable facial expressions, the noncommittal responses, the struggle to piece together randomly audible words. As Eleanor reflects sadly, “Sociability now was a triumph of form over content.”
Stevenson is herself deaf. She earned a doctorate in history from Yale and began losing her hearing shortly after publishing her dissertation. She left academia for a while to write children’s novels — of which she now has four — but since 1986 has taught writing at Marlboro College with the help of transcribers on laptop computers. She’s married to the Joel-like poet-academic F.D. Reeve, who timed the release of his latest book (reviewed recently in Seven Days) to correspond with hers.
Eleanor eventually emerges as the love interest who will bring the grieving Joel around and help him solve the mystery of Letty’s gift. Yet the pair never quite takes center stage until the final pages. Seemingly as much a master of social tact and sensitivity as is her creation Eleanor, Stevenson gives nearly equal attention to a host of other characters, including octogenarian Helena Woodhouse — Nathaniel’s old flame — and 17-year-old Charlotte (Charlie) Reynolds, a beautiful pre-Yalie who delves into researching the Ward family history after finding a 19th-century diary in the house.
Through this cast of intelligent characters who all either witnessed the past or have an interest in it, Return in Kind conveys a history of land ownership in southern Vermont that is intimately tied to individuals. These characters’ richly fleshed-out lives also coalesce to offer, among other insights, a long view of feminism and a nuanced meditation on loss.
The downside of having so many fully rounded characters is that it’s occasionally unclear whose consciousness the narrator’s voice is shadowing between conversations — and, by extension, who readers should really care about. And conversations abound: Stevenson relies heavily on meticulously detailed dialogue to advance the plot. Sometimes every stray thought and truncated response is included in an exchange. As Eleanor herself notes soon after she and Joel have taken to pen and pad to communicate, “Conversation always looks longer on paper than it is in fact” — which is why writers prune it on paper.
The lack of narrative expertise aside, laborious detail may well be Return in Kind’s biggest flaw. And even that seems an ungenerous criticism of a novel whose prevailing tone is summed up in its title: “Return in kind” is another way of saying “reciprocate,” but with an echo of kindness.