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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

When He Goes, He Takes Home With Him

NORTH COUNTRY by Howard Frank Mosher; Houghton Mifflin $22.95, 260 pages

May 30, 1997|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Since leaving home," writes Howard Frank Mosher, a combination of Ernest Hemingway, Henry David Thoreau and Jim Harrison from Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, "I've been on the lookout for indicators of what I think of as true North Country. Good brook trout fishing is one such indicator. So is a notoriously severe climate. Yet another is static over the car radio. Whenever I can't pick up anything but static, I know I'm really up on the hinterlands, exactly where I want to be."

Mosher, author of several novels, including "Where the Rivers Flow North," "Stranger in the Kingdom" and "Northern Borders," has lived for three decades in the northernmost corner of Vermont, the dark and wild setting for his stories called the Northeast Kingdom, where the strange half-breed coydogs proliferate like eucalyptus trees and where the first frost comes in late August. When I went to college in the middle of that state, the Northeast Kingdom loomed like Narnia; no one really knew where the border between the Kingdom and the rest of Vermont actually happened, but once you crossed it, you knew where you were by the very density of conifers and the confidence of the wind.

We read a lot in Southern California about the United States' border with Mexico but hardly at all about the border with Canada, which can be just as odd and unstable and lawless. Mosher, just shy of his 50th birthday, takes off right around the first frost in August (a melancholy time) to drive west across that border, dipping back and forth into Canada and ferreting out the best source for stories in each town.

He's traveling, yes, and soaking up local lore, but at least one quarter of his brain, and I think his full heart, are back in the Northeast Kingdom, going over his life as a writer, his favorite fishing spots, his years with his wife, Phyllis, their careers as high school teachers, his many and deep friendships: If we could all approach 50 in such spirits!

"Beautiful day," he says, sidling up to an old geezer in Lubec, Maine. "I'd call her a weather breeder. . . . A sunny, dead-calm day before a hell of a blow," says Old Elisha the double-ender. . . . Spawned of Canadian parents in the U.S. of A." This is the kind of character Mosher attracts. There's Ernest Chasse of Madawaska, Maine, an "old-time Acadian" in "a vivid red-and-black plaid shirt and fire-engine red suspenders," and Ti Rene, a 300-pound bush pilot Mosher meets in a roadhouse/topless bar in Quebec. "Write," says Rene of the border, "that it is a hard place to make a living, but a good place to live! And write that it is beautiful, eh? Very beautiful, but ever so fragile as well. Write that once gone, it does not come back again."

This message hovers behind "North Country," but the North still feels, whether from Mosher's confidence in it and love for it, or from the sheer stubbornness of the people who live along the border, or from descriptions of the weather, like a place you can count on not to go down without its own fight--with or without environmental regulations and in spite of developers who come and leave after one cold season.

Mosher remembers when he and his wife, in a brief period of doubt, came west to California after Mosher had enrolled in the MFA program at UC Irvine. Waiting at an intersection for the light to change, a telephone repairman in the next car noticed their Vermont plates: "I'm from Vermont, too," he calls to Mosher. "Go back home where you belong while you still can."

In the end, this is that wonderful creature, a story about a traveler who is glad to come home. In Osoyoos, British Columbia, Mosher meets Frank Wester Smith, a landscape artist in his mid-70s. "You love your Western landscape?" Mosher asks Smith. "Exactly the way you love your North Country," the painter replies.

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