By Mary Kathleen Mehuron
At the end of June, I launched my third novel called “The Belonger,” in which an American woman becomes a reluctant hero and finds love amidst the pandemonium of a monster hurricane in the Caribbean. (They say it’s the perfect summer read.) On that same day our fundraising book, “Take Me Back: An Anecdotal History of the Mad River Valley” was also released. In the beginning of August activist and local Anna Nasset celebrated publishing her first book: “Now I Speak,” is a revelation for anyone who has ever experienced gender-based violence or who knows someone who has.” A few weeks later, Fayston resident Kathy Elkind also launched her memoir, “To Walk It Is To See It: 1 Couple, 98 Days, 1400 Miles on Europe's GR5.” This was followed by Erika Nichols-Frazer’s book of poetry, “Staring Too Closely.” By any measure that is a bumper crop of writing for such a small community in just the span of one summer.
But then, our part of the country is rather known for having a lot of writers. Vermont Public’s show Brave Little State looked into this phenomenon. "There's actually a large concentration of writers and authors in the state relative to other states in the country.”
And Andrew Van Dam of the Washington Post found Vermont has the most working artists per capita, and the second-most working writers compared to other states. He says it’s second only to the District of Columbia. The state is also the birthplace of more working artists than anywhere else in the country. In another period of my life, I might have accepted this fact on face value and figured it’s just a nice place to live and people are drawn here — I mean, New York Times best-selling author James M. Tabor lives in Waitsfield too.
But over the last two years the Take Me Back research led me to an important discovery. Many of the historic families in the Mad River Valley have books that were written about them by members of those families. And I do mean many. The late Eloise Gaylord left behind a memoir that I am dying to read. And by the way, both her daughters Phyllis and Pearl are fine writers. Steve Joslin has written, at least, three books. My favorite one he wrote about his father, so that the grandchildren he was never to know could imagine him. It’s so beautiful it brought me to tears. Hugette Viens Abbot and her column in The Valley Reporter begs to be considered memoir as well. And she has carefully crafted the folksy voice in her writing that we have come to know and love. The late Trudy Folsom left behind poetry. And Kevin Eurich — he’s a wealth of gorgeous stories, including a book he just sent me called “Once Upon A Time: The Mad River Valley,” which should be carried by every library and school in The Valley. And if you own the “Take Me Back” book you have read the work of Warren resident Randy Graves. So, examining the number of authors in the Mad River Valley is not just about transplants moving here. But what are the common denominators that encourage transplants and natives alike to spend many hours putting words down on paper?
Inspiration certainly must play a part. Our grassy fields rippled by breezes, dapples of light coming through the trees, the shadows of puffy clouds on the Green Mountains. Like the song says: “Icy finger waves, Ski trails on a mountain side, Snowlight in Vermont, Evening summer breeze, Warbling of the meadowlark, Moonlight in Vermont.” The ecological thinker, political spokesman, and environmental advocate John Muir reminds us, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks." And what many of us receive in the outdoors here stimulates the most creative part of our brains.
Research has shown that clusters of authors most often happens in communities that are highly educated. But that is not necessarily the case across all the writers in our Mad River Valley. Sure, we have some individuals that prove that point, all the architects that came from Yale are one example. But we can’t let advanced college degrees and SAT scores be the only measure of intelligence and artistic sensibilities here. In previous generations of the historic families many could not spare the time away from family farms and jobs to graduate from high school. It was impractical for some to even consider such an undertaking. But many still wrote and wrote well. I’m going to go out on a limb and state unequivocally that the love of learning here not long ago was more important that an official degree. And by studying the yearbooks of the old high school I was gob-smacked to find that the education they did get was excellent. Why, in the 50s the children played in a full orchestra at school!
If you pay close attention you will also notice the way talents are nurtured here. I can remember well when my son, the director Jonathan C. Hyde, was a small child. Adults would ask him, as they so often do, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
When he said, “An artist,” they didn’t roll their eyes the way they would have in my hometown in New Jersey. Instead, they sat down next to him and said something like, “Tell me more about that.” I love the Where Are They Now? articles in The Valley Reporter, but those kids are really only the tip of the iceberg of success across the many who have graduated from our Valley schools and gone on to crush it in their chosen fields.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “There are no Second Acts in American lives.” Clearly, he never came to the Mad River Valley where we are allowed a Second Act reinvention and a Third Act Grand Finale if we want one. Have you been following all the Take Me Back articles by the Lovers of Words writing class? They are becoming writers through intention and hard work. And what about me? I was a math teacher for decades and now am encouraged by our community to be something else entirely. If anything, we get a kick out of each other and revere taking chances by trying something new.
That is what is unique about our culture here. A culture that emerges from the values of native Vermonters and people from away who love living here. Put those influences together and shake it up—and you have one fertile petri dish for creation.
Mary Kathleen Mehuron, lives in Waitsfield and writes novels. Contact her at
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