Thanks to the antics of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie playing spoiled rich girls shoveling manure in the boonies, the phrase "the simple life" is hard to utter with a straight face. Calais writer Ruth Porter's novel The Simple Life intends the title ironically. But it's still an antidote to the televised heiresses and all they represent.
In the novel's opening chapter, Jeff and Isabel Rawlings, a Massachusetts couple up for their 25th Green Mountain College reunion, get stuck in spring mud on a remote country road. They're rescued by a nearby farmer, aged but able Sonny Trumbley, who frees the car handily with his ox team and refuses payment for the favor. Jeff is eager to return to civilization, but Isabel is charmed by Sonny, his oxen and his run-down farm: She sees in them "a life of simple, basic things, the life she had always yearned to live herself . . ." Fast-forward a year: The couple's marriage has dissolved, and empty nester Isabel returns to Vermont with a car full of belongings, determined to figure out how to live the "simple life."
This, or something like it, is the plot set-up of innumerable post-1960s Vermont novels. But anyone who expects The Simple Life to be the story of a middle-aged woman's conversion to bucolic simplicity will be surprised by its scope and tragic depth.
The "simple life" turns out to be more complicated than it looks, and we see just how complicated when Porter's third-person narrator enters the minds of the people whose lives Isabel covets.
Sonny Trumbley wants to hang onto his ancestral farm, on its scenic piece of land. But he knows that when he dies, his live-in granddaughter Carol Ann will take the first chance to unload the unprofitable property. Soft-spoken and resigned, Sonny rests his hopes for the future on Carol Ann's teenage daughter, Al, who accompanies him when he cuts wood and loves to drive his prize oxen, Buck and Ben. Both woodspeople at heart, Al and Sonny have an understanding that Carol Ann can't penetrate. Yet she too is a sympathetic figure, who sometimes feels "as though she was the only grown-up" in the financially struggling family.
Porter even gives plausible shadings to a stock character of rural tales: the predatory real estate agent. Leroy Lafourniere is a flashy figure in the small town of Severance, with his big Lincoln, his string of mistresses, and his habit of gambling in Saratoga. He knows how to soften up a potential seller, and he has his eye on the Trumbley farm. But Leroy is also a deeply traditional man, at least in his own mind - "a country boy and local," not "one of those downcountry types who barge in and start talking about business without even being polite first."
It's Leroy who seduces Isabel, distracting her from her plans to live like Thoreau. It's also he who tells her, prophetically, "People come in here from some place else, and right away they want to change everything to make it just like the place they came from." Ultimately, the out-of-stater becomes an almost peripheral figure in a tale about the downfall of precisely the sort of rural life she wants to preserve. The Simple Life is a rare book - a genuine "weepie" whose sadness feels earned, not schmaltzy or manipulative, because of the depth of detail Porter has used to make us feel part of the characters' world.
Because The Simple Life is such a skillfully written and plotted novel, it's initially a surprise to learn that it was self-published - not in the usual way, where the author works with a third party who prints copies on demand, but literally. Porter and her husband, veteran Vermont newspaperman Bill Porter, started their own company, Bar Nothing Books, to put out the novel.
Sixty-six-year-old Porter conceived The Simple Life 10 years ago and "finished it so many times," she says. "Every time I finished it I'd send it out to publishers and get nowhere. By the time I finished it the last time, I knew I was going to do it myself."
To become publishers, the Porters had to register with the secretary of state, join publishers' organizations, figure out the mysteries of ISBNs and bar codes, and sign up for directories. They put up a total of $15,000 for the first thousand copies and $10,000 for the next 2000 - an expensive strategy, but one Porter hopes will eventually break even. In six months, she's already sold 1000 copies of the book, many of them through wholesaler Baker and Taylor, which sells hardbacks to libraries all over the country.
In return for her investment, Porter is able to say that "Every bit of [the book] is the way I meant it to be, even the commas." Glenn Suokko, whom she hired to design the book, gave it a muted but elegant look; the Annex Press in Windsor printed it on sturdy paper. The cover image and the stark black-and-white photos that open each chapter are by Porter herself.
The Porters named their new venture after an older one. "We had a friend who used to come and visit our farm, and he would call it the Bar Nothing Ranch," Porter says, chuckling. The name also refers to the company's openness to publishing all sorts of books. Bar Nothing will publish Porter's in-progress next novel, but she hopes other aspiring writers will "use the structure if they want to. They can buy ISBNs from us; we'll tell them what to do," she says.
Porter has one foot in the urban literary world and the other in the not-so-simple rural life she describes. Her grandfather was Maxwell Perkins, the celebrated editor of Fitzgerald, Wolfe and Hemingway. She was born in New York City into a family where "Every-body . . . thinks books are more important than anything else," she says.
The Porters came to Vermont in 1963, almost on a whim. "We'd been married a couple of years, and we just wanted to get out of the city," Porter explains. "We read this article that said South Dakota and Vermont were losing population and every other state in the United States was gaining population. So we said, 'OK, let's check out Vermont, and if we don't like what we see in Vermont, we're going to South Dakota.'" They stayed.
Was Porter ever as naïve as Isabel about the allure of the "simple life"? "Probably," she says thoughtfully, suggesting that those days are far behind her. Soon after they arrived, the Porters bought the farm they still own and started figuring out how to make the most of the land. While her husband worked in town, Porter stayed on the farm raising four children and the food - and writing. "I pretty much made everything. I would spend the whole morning writing and then do the farm stuff in the afternoon and at night," she recalls. "We used to buy like pioneers; we'd buy coffee and sugar and flour and salt, and that was just about it." Since her children left home, Porter has "slacked off" some, but the couple still heats with their own wood and raises vegetables, beef and chickens.
It's that kind of real-life experience that gives The Simple Life its richness. Porter adds a burnish of simple eloquence, as when she describes Sonny's beloved oxen "walking heavily . . . rolling the way fat people do when their feet hurt." The oxen, with their leisurely strength and their "rich smell of fruity fermentation," are also drawn from life. Porter's son kept an ox team, a project that originated when the family didn't want to kill a newborn bull calf. Porter recalls how the teenager learned to manage the animals from old-timers - for instance, an "old guy who made doughnut hooks" showed him how to make a yoke by boiling the wood into a perfect curve.
Porter's observation of the "old-time guys" who drive oxen was a major inspiration for the book. "If you ever go to one of those pulls, you see these guys, they have these wonderful relationships with [the oxen]," she says. "Especially the guys that work in the woods with them." As she speaks, her intense blue eyes convey wonder at a complex and ingenious way of life that's close to disappearing - without a trace of Paris-and-Nicole-style condescension.