Everybody knows the Vermont woods are full of writers. A rural refuge lends itself to acts of literature, as long as the overnight delivery trucks can get through the mud. But there comes a time when the isolated author wants to be found, maybe even launched on a backbreaking book tour across America. The United Parcel and FedEx guys in Tunbridge have been onto him for a year now. Down the Strafford Road from Vermont film celebrity Fred Tuttle, with the national media hot on his trail, 42-year-old Jeffrey Lent is about to get flushed.
In the Fall, Lent's first published novel, is a sprawling epic tracking Vermont family for three generations, in four distinct settings, from the Civil War to the Depression. Although it is full of history, including a swashbuckling description of Italian-filled Barre, the story is really about racism. The Pelhams don't look like typical turn-of-the-century Vermont hill farmers, even though they say “yuht” like the rest of their neighbors in Randolph. Along with a sabre wound from Pickett's Charge, Norman comes home from the war with a “Negro” wife — a runaway slave. The book reads like Cold Mountain meets Stranger in the Kingdom, with a touch of Roots.
Spanning six decades, and 560 pages, In the Fall takes a fresh look at the wages of slavery. And like Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier's story of a Confederate deserter walking home from the war, it is chock-full of rich descriptions of geography, nature and physical farm labor. Storytelling aside, the similarities end there — for Lent, the Civil War is the launching point from which successive generations of Pelhams scatter in search of their own identities. Even when it heads south, his is clearly a northern point of view.
As it did with Cold Mountain in 1997, Atlantic Monthly Press bought in big. Elisabeth Schmitz, the editor who worked with Frazier, also lobbied for and edited Lent. “The book went out on a Thursday and on Monday, Atlantic bought it,” Lent says of the “preemptive offer.” In his wildest dreams, he says he was “hoping to maybe break six figures.” He got a lot more than that. A few days later, Vintage bought the paperback rights. Eight foreign translation deals followed. The initial run of 50,000, which is considered huge for a first novel, arrived in New York last Tuesday. The next day Atlantic ordered 15,000 more.
“Right now, the very worst-case scenario is that we will do very well,” says Lent, paraphrasing his publisher. Before it hit the shelves, In the Fall was a Book of the Month selection, and had been singled out as a “Discovery” at Borders, Barnes & Noble and the New England Book Association. Incoming messages last week, during an interview at Lent's rural home, were all congratulatory. He intercepted the one from Atlantic offering two complimentary bottles of champagne, and proceeded to give the caller firm instructions on where to buy the best.
For a man who has been working day jobs for the last 15 years to support his writing habit, Lent looks remarkably natural in the glow of success. He emerges from the barn in jeans, a cotton shirt and low-slung Sorels and surveys the property: the neat white cape on one side of the road, the two mares on the other, nosing up to maples sporting old-fashioned sap buckets. His rustic but cozy study is back in the barn, with a gas-powered woodstove and bookshelves full of Faulkner, MacCarthy, Frost and Proulx. Mixed in with the literature are nonfiction works on horses, bird dogs and hunting — and four fresh, hardbacked copies of his own book, hot off the press.
Lent lights up a Nat Sherman — a custom cigarette from a tobacconist in New York City — and offers the requisite but half-hearted “If you have a real problem with this...” too late for anyone to protest. Apparently the Newsweek reporter didn't. Nor did the photographer who traveled from New York to Tunbridge to snap his book-jacket photo. Folding his long limbs into a leather chair, Jeffrey Lent has arrived. And after four toll calls and a long wait at the New Hampshire Liquor Store, so does the bubbly.
Lent has spent enough time on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line to imagine a story as vast, and culturally diverse, as the one told in In the Fall. Born and raised in Vermont, he grew up on a working farm in North Pomfret with parents who traded urban privilege for organic adventure before it was called “back-to-the-land.” After college, Lent went south — and stayed for 20 years. He was living in North Carolina when he wrote In the Fall, which is set largely in New England. Lent calls it “fiction with a historic setting,” as opposed to “historical fiction” — which suggests he took some creative liberties.
“I'm sure that I will get some Civil War buffs who will come up to me and say, 'He couldn't possibly have been in such-and-such a place at such-and-such a time,' and that's just tough, ain't it?” he says, drawing out the last four words for dramatic effect. “I have a little disclaimer at the front of the book that says something like, ‘All attempts have been made to adhere to historical record but events and geography have been altered to accommodate narrative flow.’”
Not too many history buffs are going to contest his descriptions of “the hill farm above the Bethel road south of Randolph.” Like Howard Frank Mosher, Lent paints a picture of bygone Vermont more vivid than you're likely to see on any movie screen. He lays out the land so well — the barns, sugarbush, orchard, sheep pastures, upper woodlot and family cemetery around a well-worn farmhouse — you feel you could slip on rubber boots and take over the chores.
With the same loving detail, Lent spells out daily routines. Using long, sometimes antiquated-sounding sentences that tumble off the page with very little structure or punctuation, he conveys the poetry of the toil without romanticizing it. “By midmorning, he'd be done with what the barns demanded and then he'd file his saws and grind the double-bitted axe and using the heavy harness and brichens he'd hitch the team to the sledge, load in the skidding chains and whippletree and a pair of nosebags with rations of oats and head up to the woodlot.”
Into this rough-hewn Yankee landscape steps the central figure of the novel — the proud and beautiful Leah, on the arm of a Union soldier she nursed back to health in the woods of southern Virginia. After fighting for the abolition of slavery, Norman Pelham is not prepared for the prejudice he and his new wife encounter at home in Randolph — even his mother and sister move off the farm to avoid serving the “colored girl.”
On their long walk back to Vermont, Leah reveals the circumstances of her spontaneous departure: She fled her family home in North Carolina because she thought she killed a white man — the son of her master, who was also her half-brother— when he tried to rape her.
Although nobody called it “racism” at the time, the omniscient narrator attributes these observations to Norman: “Bringing her home, what he had not foreseen was not so much the drift away of his own family but the estrangement, the voluntary withdrawal, the displacement he felt toward the neighbors and villagers themselves. Times he felt he had lost something and times he felt if he'd returned alone it would be the same: as if not the dark-skinned woman but the war he found her in was where he'd lost any sense of common-hold with other men.”
The couple is plenty happy together, though, and after multiple miscarriages and a harrowing labor, they finally produce a child. Leah has a total of three children — two girls and a boy — before she gets it into her head to go back to North Carolina. After a 25-year absence, she is concerned about her mother and a friend who risked his life to help her escape. She returns tragically transformed by the experience and goes to her grave without ever saying what transpired. It falls to her grandson, 30 years later, to unravel the mystery.
Lent readily admits In the Fall is “big, wide and loose.” Instead of editing as he went along, he made a deal with himself to trim later. “What I discovered was that things I would normally have cut out, I would write another page and realize, ooh, that actually fits now.” He left a few scenes out of sequence, like “coming attractions,” but there are other reasons to keep reading. “After the last 20 years of taut little postmodern deconstructionist MFA program semi-autobiographical novels,” he says, “we are seeing a return to novels that are stories.”
Lent's characters rose to the occasion. “Every one ... came up and felt like a real, living, vivid human being,” he says. “I had an idea of where I was going all along, but the tone of the story suggested aspects of personality for each character. They were directing their actions. My job was simply to follow them and render them truthfully.”
If anything, he might have reined them in a bit. There are times when In the Fall feels bloated, crowded with too many compelling characters thinking deep thoughts. The middle section — of three, which roughly correspond to the three generations of Pelham progeny — could stand on its own. But Jamie is the connecting link, even though he quits the farm, denies his ethnicity, abandons his relatives and leaves Vermont for New Hampshire. The son of Norman and Leah, he is also the father of Foster, who returns to Randolph, then to North Carolina, to complete the family circle.
A self-made man who forsakes his roots for personal achievement, Jamie does most of the striving — and driving — in In the Fall. He heads first to Barre, where he gets his first taste of the bootleg business. In the gritty whirl of granite dust and tobacco smoke, he meets his match in a street-smart orphan girl. The couple ends up in the resorts of the White Mountains, where Jamie and Joey develop their respective, but not exactly respectable, trades: She works as a singer, playing men along with her voice; he manages the hotel bar, running whiskey on the side.
Jamie never tells her — or the children they have together — anything about his past. And when he exits unexpectedly after wife and daughter die of influenza, it leaves the teenage boy Foster alone with a case of whiskey, a pair of bird dogs and a modern motorcar to find his way in the world in the Roaring '20s. He gets a clue from a wad of postcards in his father's desk, and shows up in Randolph, as surprised to see his two mulatto spinster aunts as they are to lay eyes on him. The knowledge they feed him, between slabbed ham and vinegar pie, is both comforting and unsettling.
Like almost everyone in the book, Foster wants to know more about his grandmother. So at 16, he steers his Chrysler south to find out what happened to her. It's the last of three consecutive coming-of-age stories, in which Foster encounters the extremes of humanity in a place that is totally unfamiliar to him — but not to Lent, who draws it with car-seat-sticking accuracy. Foster tracks down Mebane — the half-brother Leah thought she killed — and the old man receives him with crotchety enthusiasm. He knows what the boy is after, but postpones his confession until the end of a marathon interview. Malevolent as he is, the old man turns out to be something of a philosopher.
Speaking of slavery, he says: “What will be forgot is the small everyday things that made it real. Because each man has to contribute some way to keep such a flimsy tent aloft. But once it is down we all can step away from it and say it was the other fellow — the other fellow that pitched it in the first place and the other fellow as well that helped hold it up. And so we walked away from it, the ruins of it. And it will never be made right. It will never be repaired … We could flourish, I guess. But it will not happen ... Perhaps because it's easier to lie between the legs of that dark sister than to call her by name.”
Lent tells of an early reader who wrote him a letter, suggesting race and slavery in particular were subjects best handled by Southern writers. “Basically he was saying, 'Do you feel you have the right to write about this?” Lent recalls. “I replied by saying pride of place is important for all of us, but regionalism can become factionalism very easily, and that can be very unhealthy. Racism in America is unfinished business, and if there is an agenda with this book, it's just to make people think about that a little bit.”
Lent grew up on his own hilltop farm, but his parents made sure he saw the world beyond. “As a kid I was fascinated by history,” he says, and growing up on horseback helped him picture it. His father, the son of a New York ad executive, was a livestock dealer who bred horses and draft mules when he was not haying, sugaring or logging. He cut 10 cords of wood a winter to feed an antiquated wood furnace. “A lot of the farm stuff was pretty easy,” Lent says of the rendering of those daily details in his book. “But I had to research some things, like 19th-century sugaring techniques.”
Lent's mother came from a similar background, as he puts it, having “bailed out” to make a life for herself in Vermont. Although she worked on the farm, she also taught school, which brought in extra money for things like summer camp and vacations. “So we sort of had the weird agricultural life but also a more middle-class upbringing,” Lent says. “I credit my mother for realizing we needed the exposure beyond.”
When he reached his teens, that exposure took an interracial form. His mother sent him to an alternative high school in New York state that Lent describes as “50 percent middle-class white kids with hair down to their ass and 50 percent inner-city black kids.” After he got over the initial fear, he says, “What I learned from that experience was, there were kids I liked and kids I didn't like, kids who were bullies and kids who were friendly. Some of each of those groups were black and some of them were white.”
At least in part, that high school prepared him for a much longer stay in the South. Lent was a sophomore at Franconia College when it closed in 1978, then finished up his degree at SUNY Purchase. His parents got divorced when he was in college, and his mother moved to North Carolina — close to a spot where her family spent summers when she was a child. Lent visited a few times and then reasoned, “I had read everything Faulkner had ever written and thought it would probably be a good idea to live in the South for a while.”
He bounced around, working and drifting. “I always considered myself a writer, but I wasn't writing much at the time.” He worked in restaurants, and was shocked to be put in charge of black kitchen workers with much more experience than he had. Another job found him playing foreman to a black farmhand errand boy with a violent streak and a drinking problem. “It was appalling to me, of course, at 19.”
Along with his wife Marion, who was originally from Massachusetts, Lent made another important acquaintance in North Carolina. Through his bird-hunting mother, he met an older man who had grown up on a farm in the area. Loosened with enough bourbon, the man would tell of the way black workers were treated, casually noting that one was locked in a latrine for two days for misbehaving. “In so many words, he was saying, 'You don't understand black people. We understand black people,’” Lent says. The experience definitely helped him invent Mebane.
Lent never meant to stay in North Carolina for 20 years. But he had a caretaking gig, followed by a newspaper wholesaler job that allowed him plenty of time to write. He came close on a couple of books, and snagged a well-respected agent, but never scored with a book until this one, which took 18 months to write. “I had been trying to get back for years, and my wife loves Vermont,” he says. His mother has relocated to Chelsea. He attributes his book's plentiful descriptions of the north country to “homesickness.”
When the Lents arrived last May, with a baby daughter, they hired an electrician to work on their house. Without knowing anything about Jeffrey, he launched into a relevant story about a black man working construction in the area. The electrician mentioned to the black man how “nice” it must be for him to be up here in Vermont, “where people are friendly and not prejudiced.” The black man responded, “Man, you don't know what you're talking about. You don't know a thing about where you live.”
The electrician was shocked to hear the black man had suffered numerous indiginities as a result of his skin color, including being pelted by beer bottles from a passing pickup truck. Sympathetic as he was, for Lent it was a vindication. One-hundred-thirty-five years after the Civil War, racism is still not history in Vermont. “It was one of those cosmic gifts you get,” Lent says of the exchange that confirmed the truth of his fiction. “Barely being back here and feeling like, yes, I nailed something there.”