Howard Frank Mosher: 1942 -2017
A writer who knew his place
For the humble novelist and memoirist, it was all about his beloved Northeast Kingdom in Vermont.
By David Van Wie Reprinted from the Maine Sunday Telegram, February 5, 2017
“Read the classics. Revise your work. Write what you know.”
So said Earla Armstrong, Howard Frank Mosher’s junior-high English teacher. In his touching and humorous 2012 memoir, “The Great Northern Express,” Mosher tells us that, although the woman who students called “The Battle-ax” universally hated kids, her “advice to me about writing stories remains, to this day, the best I have ever received.”
In a career that lasted from the 1960s until his death from cancer last week at age 74, Mosher followed the Battle-ax’s words to the letter, writing (and revising) vivid stories about small-town New England, especially in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, that read like the classics.
Armstrong herself even appears in his 1994 novel, “Northern Borders” — “the only real person I ever used in a work of fiction without changing her name,” he noted.
Haven’t heard of Howard Frank Mosher? Well, don’t feel bad. Neither had I until last year.
A modest and self-deprecating man, Mosher purposely avoided the media spotlight. Despite widespread acclaim and an impressive tally of honors, including a New England Book Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Mosher never became a household name. In his memoir, Mosher even jokes about his anonymity, referring to himself as “Howard Who.”
I first learned of Mosher from Bob Romano, a novelist who writes fly-fishing stories about the Rangeley area. As my book, “The Confluence,” neared publication, my co-authors and I were looking for advance readers to review the book and write blurbs for the cover. Romano suggested I call Mosher, describing him as approachable and eager to help new writers and as someone with a love of fishing and the North Woods.
When I looked up Mosher’s titles, they seemed vaguely familiar. Yet, none of my avid reader friends had heard of him. I was impressed that several of Mosher’s books, including “Where the Rivers Flow North” (1994), “Stranger in the Kingdom” (1999), and “Northern Borders” (2013) had been made into movies, starring the likes of Martin Sheen, Geneviève Bujold, Kris Kristoferrson and Michael J. Fox.
Now I was a little intimidated. But Bob Romano was right. Mosher responded to my request with enthusiasm: “I’d be delighted to read the book. Send it along!”
I mailed our book and, feeling guilty that I had not read any of Mosher’s novels, picked up a used copy of “Stranger in the Kingdom.” I was pulled in immediately. One of my co-authors, Phil Odence, downloaded “God’s Kingdom.” A few chapters in, he raved about it.
Three days later, I received another email from Mosher: “‘The Confluence’ arrived yesterday. I read it in one sitting.” The heart-felt review was a big encouragement.
Wanting to thank him and knowing that he enjoyed fly-fishing, I invited Mosher last summer to join me chasing wild brook trout in northern New Hampshire not too far from his home. He politely declined, saying he was under a tight deadline for his forthcoming book, “Points North.”
Before I heard he was ill, I was hoping I could coax him to wet a line with me this summer when I pass through Vermont on an epic “storied waters tour” that I have planned, to chronicle visits to over a dozen famous rivers that appear in tales by Corey Ford, Aldo Leopold, John Voelker (aka Robert Traver), Hemingway and others.
My itinerary includes the Black River, which appears in Mosher’s books as the Kingdom River. I am heartbroken that he won’t be there to cast a fly with me and perhaps pass along some of his storytelling magic.
Mosher’s work has been underappreciated, I believe, because he is considered a “regional” writer by many, due to his steadfast commitment to writing about rural New England. But, he was no more a regional writer than his heroes Steinbeck and Faulkner. In fact, Mosher’s North Country novels remind me of Steinbeck’s Dustbowl trilogy, Fannie Flagg’s “Fried Green Tomatoes,” Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” and Ivan Doig’s “English Creek.”
After moving to Orleans, Vermont, in 1964, Mosher taught English in the local high school while his wife Phillis taught science. With a keen eye and ear, he began collecting real-life stories and observing characters that would be woven into his fictional Kingdom County. As he honed his voice, Mosher decided it was his mission to preserve the culture and atmosphere of rural Vermont during the 1950s and ’60s, which was vanishing before his eyes as interstate highways and television brought the outside world in.
Who would write the stories we were hearing every day right here in the Kingdom?” he mused in his memoir, “If no one did, then they too, like the little farms and big woods of this last Vermont frontier would be gone forever.”
Mosher’s stories are about people and place. His characters are who they are because of where they live. He covered every aspect of small-town life – generous neighborly values and petty feuds and grudges; rural poverty and a deep appreciation for the wealth and beauty of the forested landscape. His stories also delve deeply into social issues like alcoholism, violence and racism, often hidden in white, pastoral New England until it suddenly becomes an ugly headline.
Although his novels are all set in Vermont, it is clear that Mosher is also telling the stories of dozens of hardscrabble towns from Maine to the Adirondacks to northern Michigan. Some of those towns are tenaciously hanging on to the past, while others are fading into the future, as Mosher feared. Fortunately, Mosher has preserved them for us to visit, between the covers of his novels.
Mosher’s stories ring true for so many because he followed the Battle-ax’s advice. He wrote what he knew. And his stories are now classics.