This year, I published my fourth novel about Carding, Vermont (Lights in Water, Dancing). Carding is a small, rather quirky town that is a distillation of life in the bi-state region of Vermont and New Hampshire that locals (like me) call “the Upper Valley.”
I grew up in Massachusetts in a place like Carding, a town with churches in several different flavors, an elementary school in every quadrant, dirt roads, lots of hills, a mountain for skiing, and great places to swim in the summer.
So yeah, I love town life in New England.
This point of view was reinforced by the five years I spent writing for the Upper Valley’s local newspaper, the Valley News. Much to my delight, reporting gave me the opportunity to watch the ebb and flow of local politics and the lives of fascinating people up close and personal.
It was the best education a newbie writer could ask for. I discovered that there’s a lot of wisdom in our hills and rivers. All of these experiences and locations make up the river that flows through Carding.
In all the years I’ve been entertaining readers on this website, I don’t think I’ve ever taken the time to write about the background of the little town that no one can seem to find on a map and how it coagulated into a physical form that I see in that mysterious place we call “the mind’s eye.”
Isn’t that a great descriptive phrase, “the mind’s eye?”
Here’s one of the starting points. When my family first moved to this area, we rented a house on 75 acres of land in one of its very smallest towns. I’ve always maintained that Carding has a population of 3,700 people which is small by many standards. But Carding’s size dwarfs the real town of Dorchester, New Hampshire (population 300 at the time).
In Dorchester, we were, literally, a 45-minute ride from everywhere, living on the top of a small hill surrounded by bigger hills. There wasn’t a street light to be see for miles around.
And it was very, very quiet.
That first winter was INTENSE with more snow than we’ve seen in any winter since. Our mailbox and newspaper box became holes in the snowbank on the side of the road. When the snow from the roof of our living room slid off to the ground, it piled up so high, the bottom half of our windows were covered.
One of our closest neighbors was a woman who had lived in the same house all her life. She cooked on a wood-burning stove and was fond of saying: “Anyone who talks about the ‘good old days’ didn’t live through them.”
Her name was Francis and she once told me that “it snows in Dorchester when it doesn’t snow any place else.”
At first I dismissed her remark as just so much “Yankee hubris.” But Francis was absolutely right.
Geographically, Dorchester was settled on a curved ridge that functions much like your hands do when you scoop up water. Just north and east of the hills of Dorchester, the formidable White Mountains rise up to scrape the sky.
Every time a storm ventured in our direction, the clouds struggled to rise above Dorchester’s long incline. Like hot air balloons trying to cross mountains, the clouds had to lighten their load in order to keep going so they released copious amounts of snow on our very small town.
And that meant we’d be shoveling again.
And again and again.
Snow softens sound just as surely as it softens the contours of a landscape. It’s a hush like no other. I loved the intense silence and undisturbed darkness so on clear nights, I got into the habit of taking a turn down our driveway—it wasn’t very long—to enjoy the starlight and moonlight undisturbed by anything manmade.
We don’t get the chance to do that very often in our estranged-from-nature world, do we?
I remember one windless night in particular as I watched the Milky Way wheel overhead. For just a few moments, I sensed the Earth’s orbit and heard her turn.
It was an exquisite sensation.
Or course, the Upper Valley isn’t all wonder and beauty. It’s got people in it, after all. There’s plenty of personal sturm und drang to go around. And then there’s politics, local politics. It was in local politics (which I covered as a reporter) where The Road Unsalted began.
In general, folks in the small towns of northern New England argue about pretty much the same things—schools and how to pay for them, property taxes (which is how schools are financially supported), town buildings and town equipment (as in how they are bought, managed, renovated and built), and roads.
In my experience, no subject is as touchy as roads.
Living in northern New England means dealing with weather, lots of weather, and it is a struggle that not made for sissies. Our roads bear the brunt of all this weather with temperatures that range from 90 degrees above zero and humidity so high you can barely breathe to 20 degrees below zero and coatings of ice.
For those of you who are into numbers, that’s a 110 degree difference in temperature over the course of a year and all of the physical adjustments that go along with it.
Roads up here are expensive to maintain. Asphalt, salt, sand, plowing, cutting back weeds, filling in potholes, digging drainage ditches and clearing drainage ditches, and grading dirt are all a part of this year-round struggle. And this work represents a significant part of every town’s budget.
Of course, everyone wants their road to be perfect every time they drive somewhere, and it doesn’t matter if that road is an interstate highway or a one-laner of the dirt variety.
So you can understand why towns elect not to plow or sand or salt some of the less-traveled dirt roads in winter. When they do, these byways become “the roads unsalted.”
Now a town can’t decide to do this willy-nilly. There’s a process they have to follow when abandoning what many Vermonters call “ancient ways” and that process can be very, very contentious with all sorts of repercussions when it comes to ownership and use.
This bit of esoteric knowledge lies at the heart of my first novel of Carding, Vermont called, appropriately enough, The Road Unsalted.
The story begins when one of the main roads in town becomes part of a power struggle between a woman named Edie Wolfe and her still-bitter-after-thirty-years ex-husband, Harry Brown
Edie, whom many in Carding consider the town matriarch, is the executive director of Carding’s best-known asset, an internationally renowned school called the Carding Academy of Traditional Arts. Harry owns Brown & Sons, Inc., a trucking and construction firm that’s the town’s biggest employer.
For safety reasons, Edie wants to stop Harry’s trucks from using the portion of Meetinghouse Road that passes in front of the school. One of her students had been hit by Harry’s eldest son, Gideon, giving her a legitimate reason for concern.
Harry’s having none of it, and when he discovers that Meetinghouse Road lies in legal limbo, he forces the whole town to take part in his effort to avenge himself on the woman who dared to leave him so many years ago.
But just at the moment when it looks like Harry will succeed, he discovers that this idyllic small town is not immune from the follies of human conduct. And one of these follies (based on a story that I witnessed as a reporter) has the potential to sabotage the best-laid plans of Harry Brown.
A note about one of the main characters in The Road Unsalted. When I started drafting the book, I figured Harry’s son Gideon would just noodle about in the background as a minor figure. But as my words became sentences and paragraphs, I developed a real fondness for this emotionally damaged man as he struggled to emerge from his father’s dubious shadow.
What I came to appreciate about Gideon Brown is his self-awareness. His actions hurt people, including the love of his life, but instead of taking the easy way out by blaming others for his loss, he faces his faults squarely. But the question is, will Gideon be able to change the course life has laid out for him?
It took me three more novels to answer that question.
As readers of my books and the Carding Chronicles realize, my stories and novels recognize and celebrate the very human experiences in the extraordinary lives of the people we pass by every day. They’re meant to entertain, to make folks chuckle with appreciation or reach for a tissue to soak up a bit of water gathering in the corner of an eye.
And you get to enjoy some of the beauty of the special place I call home.
The four novels of Carding, Vermont are available for order from your local book store or online at Amazon.com. They are great gifts for everyone who loves to read.
They are, in order of appearance:
The Road Unsalted
Thieves of Fire
The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life
Lights in Water, Dancing
I hope you’ll read my books and subscribe to this website so that you can enjoy stories about Carding, Vermont every Thursday.
And if I can ask one more favor, please review my books online. We probably all turn to online sources to figure out what to read next and this way, you can show others the way to Carding.