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Regional Reads



Published January 11, 2006 at 5:00 p.m.

Have you ever wondered how many novels portray Bennington College as a den of depravity? How many coming-of-age tales wind around the Lamoille River? Whether James Bond ever set foot in Vermont?

The answers, respectively, are at least three, two, and yes -- in Ian Fleming's For Your Eyes Only, 007 sneaked over the border to neutralize Euro-baddies in the Northeast Kingdom. Such local literary curiosities are satisfied in A Guide to Fiction Set in Vermont, by South Newfane resident Ann McKinstry Micou. It's the first book published by the Vermont Humanities Council.

The Guide lists works by lifelong Vermonters alongside those of authors who never left Manhattan -- the common denominator is, they all used a Green Mountain setting. A comprehensive reference work rather than a sampler, the book is easy to use -- and surprisingly addictive. If you want to find, say, a novel based in your town, or a surreal Vermont horror tale, you can go straight to the appendices, in which nearly 500 works are grouped by their genres, publication dates, and real or fictitious settings. Or you can go to the "subject index," which reveals impressive numbers of books about "communes and cults," "suicide," "skiing" and "flatlanders."

The bulk of the Guide comprises plot summaries -- nearly 300 pages of them -- arranged alphabetically by author. Opening at random, one discovers that best-selling author Sue Miller's 2001 novel The World Below hinges on the heroine's dilemma about whether to start a new life in rural Vermont or return to San Francisco. St. Albans part-timer Frances Frost published This Innocent Summer, a series of tragic vignettes set in northern Vermont, in 1936.

Perhaps the best parts of these summaries are the author quotations, which aptly convey their spins on the state. Frost, for instance, described her bleak, north-country setting as a place where "blue fog brushed the coral of hawthorn and rose-haws, lifted to bathe the boughs in the acrid fragrance of disaster." Skip on over to the entry for celebrated Gen-X novelist Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude and you encounter a completely different Vermont, one viewed from the perspective of a Fresh Air kid from Brooklyn. "This null area . . . was only measured in its distance from the city, its use as a restorative, a place to get your act together before returning to the real world."

Although the Guide was published by the Humanities Council and underwritten by the Vermont Department of Libraries, for Micou it started out as a labor of love. Like the protagonists of many of the books she lists, the author came to Vermont from "outside." Now 75, Micou had a 46-year career that included extensive international travel and nonprofit work. As director of the Southern African Information Exchange, she produced research that aided the work of anti-apartheid groups.

In 1999, Micou retired from her New York-based job and moved to Vermont, where she took up research of a different flavor. "When I came here, it was clear to me right away that I wanted to start reading fiction set in Vermont," she says in a phone interview. "From a casual interest, I got quite passionate about what I was learning. After a year, I realized this was something I couldn't stop doing. It became a treasure hunt, to follow all the clues."

The books range from heavyweight literary novels to Harle-quins: The only excluded genres are poetry and kid fiction. Save for the stray admiring comment, she leaves evaluations of literary merit to the reader.

Micou initially discovered Vermont-linked writers by reading cover blurbs -- authors with common home states or interests are often asked to review one another. Soon she moved from her local library to heavy-duty research sources such as the Library of Congress, the NovelList database and UVM's Special Collections. She researched obscure 19th-century writers and found other works "by luck, just by scrolling around." The book involved exhaustive cross-referencing, of which Micou says with a chuckle, "It's not everybody's vocation, but it is mine."

Micou prefers not to name her own favorite Vermont-set novels, but she says they come from two broad categories. The first is "some really stunning novels" produced by women born between the 1850s and 1870s, such as Sarah Cleghorn and Dorothy Canfield Fisher. "Then there are writers whom I loved in another world, before I came to Vermont," says Micou, pointing out that Irwin Shaw, John O'Hara, Nathanael West, Pearl Buck and Sinclair Lewis have all featured Vermont settings in their stories or novels.

So did Stephen King, Annie Proulx, Paul Auster, Danielle Steele, Ambrose Bierce, Mark Helprin, Shirley Jackson, Nora Roberts, Donald Westlake, B. Comfort, Bret Easton Ellis and Jodi Picoult. It's quite a motley gallery -- a Vermont of innocent villages and decadent campus antics; of sinister mansions and struggling farmsteads; of supernatural manifestations and salt of the earth.

While fiction by Vermonters is as diverse as those who author it, Vermont-set fiction has recurring themes. Micou calls one of these "belonging versus rejection," or the "tension between people whose grandfathers made their pitch in the New Hampshire grant and fought for their land and other people who come up and try to push their way around." A later-developing theme is that of "traditional Vermont versus progress." The Guide features dozens of post-1960s titles that play variations on the "Flatlanders go back to the land" motif.

"Fiction," Micou points out, "is a social history of Vermont."

While A Guide to Fiction Set in Vermont explores the definition of a place, the mission of the Saranac Review is to transcend geographical boundaries. The new annual literary journal is housed at SUNY Plattsburgh's English Department, but it welcomes submissions from both sides of the border. As editor Linda Young puts it in her opening notes, the Review "aims to dissolve boundaries and to create connections between American and Canadian writers, acting as a textual clearing, a space for cross-pollination."

The inaugural issue features writers from all over the United States, along with a handful of Canadians and two Serbian authors in translation. Vermont gets plenty of ink. UVM painting professor Frank Owen's vibrantly colored abstract "In Season August" graces the journal's cover. Inside, there's poetry by David Budbill, Green Mountains Review editor Neil Shepard, and UVM lecturer Elizabeth Powell. Faculty from the writing programs at Vermont College and Bennington are also represented.

But the most tantalizing piece in the Saranac Review is an excerpt from prolific Middlebury College professor Jay Parini's new Civil War novel. Entitled Deadline Fiddle, it'll be published by HarperCollins in 2007. In three nonconsecutive chapters, Parini introduces us to a music-loving young Union soldier, to the jaded wife of a Confederate officer and, finally, to a hellish prison camp in Georgia: a human "anthill" where the earth is "hard like brick" and the only stream "foamed and boiled with insects and human excrement." Then the author leaves us hanging -- and thinking. "Young men rarely take their own mortality into account when it comes to wars," Parini's soldier muses wryly in the first excerpt. "If they did, there would be no wars."

Speaking of Underlines, Edible Complex