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Curiouser and Curiouser

Book Review: Everyday Life in America: A View From Vermont


Published March 17, 2004 at 2:19 p.m.

It's too bad the cover of writer Helen Husher's new collection of essays, Everyday Life in America: A View from Vermont, features a rosy-uddered Holstein standing in the snow. It's a tired rural image of the sort you'd expect to find on any standard Vermont tourist publication. Fortunately, Husher's book of witty, insightful meditations on Vermontica is anything but.

The state's cultural landscape is familiar territory for the Montpelier writer. Husher covered a similar beat for Seven Days. And in her last book, Off the Leash: Subversive Journeys Around Vermont, explored a number of quirky tourist attractions --the birthplace of Joseph Smith and the Hope Cemetery, to name a couple --in a take-off on the guide-book form.

In her new book, Husher goes deeper, mixing reportage with history and sociology. In 14 essays, she muses on the essential Vermontness of curiosities like the dog chapel, the ghoulish curbside sculpture park on Route 7 in South Burlington and the Spam curry puffs at the Champlain Valley Fair. But Husher doesn't just catalog oddities; she researches and analyzes them in colorful prose that is both loving and self-consciously obsessive. The result is a study of our state that is as fascinating as it is fun to read.

Husher deconstructs Vermont's reputation as a kind of "theme park for the rustic life." In "Cold Hard Cider," the essay that opens the book, she discusses the old tourism stand-bys, "maple trees, ski lifts, and rural beauty." "A lot of time and money has been spent burnishing the image of Vermont as a place where this trinity is in perpetual operation," she writes, "sort of like nightly fireworks at Disney World or the Maid of the Mist, with excursions hourly, at Niagara Falls."

Husher admits that the trees and the lifts do, in fact, exist here, and yes, this is a really pretty place. But, she writes, this image alone is "unsatisfactory." "It leaves out the cold hard cider that runs in the veins of the state," she argues, "the astringent, surprising, and mildly intoxicating aftertaste of violent thunderstorms, peculiar place-names, insular gossip, and muddy roads." Husher insists that the recipe for this "cider" calls for the usual ingredients of the Vermont myth, but it also includes Fred Tuttle, emu farms and civil unions.

To get a real taste of it, she suggests, visitors should slow down and stop rushing from one cute town to the next. "It's not that I want them to feel short-changed," she writes, "and to not get from Vermont what they came for...But I also want them to get what they didn't come for, which is sometimes more puzzling, more piercing, more like a stick in the eye." Husher wants residents and visitors alike to appreciate the lesser-known peculiarities of Vermont's history and culture.

In her writing, Husher doesn't just appreciate weirdness; she revels in it. Take the essay "The Art Capital of the World." With a title like that, you might think she'd talk about whom -- Norman Rockwell, maybe? Nope. Husher spends several pages describing the work of Harry Barber, a little known, all-but-forgotten man who built dozens of elaborate miniature stone castles all over South Hero from 1920 until his death in 1960.

Husher walks us through one of the surviving castles, a four-foot-tall structure complete with towers, a moat and "platforms from which boiling oil can be poured onto the heads of tiny marauding enemies." The castle once had real windows and working lights, but most of the fancy finishing touches have since disappeared. "The boundary between handmade backyard art and handmade backyard kitsch has always been permeable," Husher observes. "The work of Harry Barber lies somewhere in between, but it's hard to be sure whether this castle merely straddles the line or actually defines it."

Kitschy or no, Husher clearly admires Barber's work, and even more so his stubborn, Vermonty determination to keep doing it, despite the obvious fact that his creations can't possibly survive the harsh winter weather. "There is something curiously pleasing," she writes, "about the idea of these tiny, interesting castles slowly melting in the golden light into tiny, interesting ruins."

Ditto the sculpture park at the foot of the Price Chopper parking lot on Route 7, which Husher covers in the chapter the "Edge of the Clearing." I've always dismissed it as that psycho-gargoyle thing, but Husher is much kinder. "It's a miniature and symbolic forest," she writes, "that lies at the center of a compact world, and around it and in it these sphinxes pass the time by perching, watching, waiting." Uh, well, sure. But it's still creepy.

Husher also covers Champ and the catamount in the gargoyle essay, concluding that we Vermonters have a "temperamental tendency to look between the trees and conjure up mystical and valuable beings." True? Maybe. But the three elements she's comparing are enough alike that the essay works, and the sculpture park is weird enough that reading about it in this context is both surprising and delightful.

Most of the essays accomplish this synergy, though the inclusion of Steven Huneck, creator of the Dog Chapel, in the sartorially slanted "How to Dress Like a Vermonter," doesn't quite work. Husher lumps his weird, dog-sized chapel, a tribute to the human-dog bond, in with the Vermont frumpiness fetish and a hilarious skinny-dipping memo written by U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy. The connection, apparently, is the emotional "nakedness" Husher feels when visiting the chapel, but it isn't as seamless as most of her artfully drawn juxtapositions. It's too bad, because the material on Huneck is some of Husher's best.

"Talking to Stephen Huneck," she warns, "means that your ears are lifted for the sound of the platitude alert, which is a loud, steady beeping that carries well in the North Country. For various reasons the alarm does not sound." In other words, "this guy has the potential to be sooooo cliche, but for some reason, he's not." Husher could be describing herself -- a book called A View from Vermont has the potential to be painfully cheesy, but Husher manages to deliver a fresh perspective.

In the book's introduction, she relates the following conversation: "Not long ago, when I mentioned to an acquaintance that I was once again writing essays about Vermont, I got a pitying response. ‘You are so stuck,' he told me. ‘I totally mean that.'" If Husher is stuck, we're totally lucky it's here.