If you've been putting off buying that Mother's Day card, you might find inspiration in the 20th-anniversary issue of Visit'n, an annual compilation of oral history from the Vermont Folklife Center. One of the stories told in this "greatest hits" collection of taped narratives from voluble Vermonters is that of Flora Shippee, a West Dover woman who was widowed in the 1920s with "nine children and one on the way."
Obeying her husband's dying wish to keep the family together, Shippee weathered the Depression by working as a nurse and a laundress. She concocted home remedies from garden weeds, taught her kids moral lessons in the form of stories and rhyming jingles, and became matriarch to a brood of grandchildren and great-grandchildren who still gather for annual reunions today. "Very seldom did I remember my mother showing that she was discouraged," says daughter Cora Bardwell.
Shippee's story is plainspoken and powerful, but it won't sell as many copies as Chicken Soup for Every Mom's Soul, the latest entry in the interminable, indomitable Chicken Soup series. This well-timed collection of bite-sized inspirational tales -- most of them submitted by readers via the Chicken Soup website -- features two Vermonters: Susan Krushenick of Warren and Mary Ann Horenstein of Burlington, who writes articles on local history for the Free Press.
As Mother's Day approaches and mud season retreats, various events beckon literary-minded Vermonters who are feeling the spring itch to get out of the house. Here are a few possibilities:
Most people who stop by the village of Stowe on a spring evening come for ice cream or a cold brew after a day's hike on the Notch. This May, a handful will also come to learn the craft of fiction from a Pushcart Prize nominee.
Corinth resident Mary Hays is a rare bird in today's youth-obsessed publishing world, in which editors seeking the next Prep are eagerly buying up manuscripts by 17-year-old Harvard freshmen. After years of writing plays and short fiction, Hays launched a promising career as a literary novelist at age 63, when her Learning to Drive was published by Shaye Areheart Books. The novel about a devout Christian Scientist whose faith is shaken by her husband's sudden death attracted national review attention and admiring blurbs from fellow novelists Chris Bohjalian and Judy Blume.
When a fan of Hays' novel who lived near Stowe suggested she do a reading at the Stowe Free Library, Hays got to talking with librarian Charlotte Maison Kastner. She's been using her "Face to Face: Meet the Author" series to attract big audiences and big names for a small-town library -- among them William Sloane Coffin and National Book Award-winner Nathaniel Philbrick. The library also offers workshops in poetry, short fiction and nonfiction; Hays agreed to step in and teach the free, library-funded fiction workshop, with attendance capped at 12. (At press time, Maison Kastner said some spots were still open.)
A veteran writing teacher with experience both on the college and secondary levels, Hays says she especially enjoys teaching "free-range, free-will adults, because they are truly there for all the right reasons." Among the workshop's topics are "creating a world," "creating characters you can live with" and "the playwright within you" -- something Hays knows firsthand, since she began her career as a dramatist.
Besides recently receiving the prestigious short fiction nomination, Hays has a Vermont Arts Council grant to fund her in-progress novel, which she says is "set in a place called Quarry City, modeled after Barre, during the politically repressive McCarthy era." Meanwhile, she's looking forward to a lively reading on the 17th from Learning to Drive, which she calls "a book that leads to great discussions . . . Everyone, it seems, has had either a Christian Science aunt or college roommate who sneaked a bit of aspirin on the side. More than that, though, Learning to Drive is about someone who's been raised in an extremist religion and charts her journey back into the ordinary, unpredictable and ultimately mysterious world of human beings."
Another Vermont writer getting national attention is Don Bredes, the North Danville creator of detective Hector Bellevance. Beth Kanell, co-owner of Kingdom Books in St. Johnsbury, reports that New York Times mystery critic Marilyn Stasio will discuss Bredes' new Northeast Kingdom-set potboiler, The Fifth Season, in her May 8 column. "Of course, there's no guarantee that [Stasio] will praise it -- fingers crossed!" says Kanell, who describes The Fifth Season as a tale of brutal murder and small-town politicking set -- when else? -- in mud season. Bredes will be at Kingdom Books for a reading and signing on Monday, May 9.
Kids and parents who attend the Everybody Wins! Vermont Third Annual Family Literacy Celebration will get to hear Senator Jim Jeffords read a storybook and meet Jean Marzollo, author of the wildly popular I Spy books. But staffers at Everybody Wins!, a "not-for-profit literary and mentoring program" that brings employees of local businesses into schools to read with children, are already celebrating. The organization's Vermont chapter recently received a Starbucks Foundation grant of $10,000, which it will use to buy books, train volunteers, and run workshops.
Starbucks supporting children's literacy? While most elementary schoolers aren't -- one hopes -- in the habit of ordering double lattes, the juxtaposition makes sense when you scan the average coffeehouse, full of cellphone chatters, Internet surfers and, yes, readers. Maybe today's Lemony Snicket fans are tomorrow's Tazo chai drinkers.
Jennifer Guebert, Starbucks marketing director for the Great Northeastern Region, puts it more loftily: "Our mission is: to create hope, discovery and opportunity in communities where Starbucks partners live and work," and hence to fund "programs that promote youth leadership through the power of literacy and respect for diversity," she says. Although 14-year-old Everybody Wins! has chapters across the United States, so far only the Vermont and Connecticut chapters have received Starbucks grants.
For Christian Keidel, manager of the South Burlington Starbucks, the grant isn't something abstract. He's been volunteering as an Everybody Wins! mentor since January, reading weekly with a student at Burlington's Edmunds Elementary School and helping her write an entry for the program's annual poetry contest. "Watching her open up over a few weeks' readings and express herself more is really rewarding," says Keidel, who hopes eight or nine Burlington-area baristas will participate in Everybody Wins! next fall. "It's a big shocker whenever I do an interview and explain that an aspect of working at Starbucks is being actively involved in the community," he adds. "It's just not what people think when they walk in the door."