The North Country lost an iconic writer when Howard Frank Mosher died this past January after a battle with cancer. Mosher wrote 11 novels and dozens of short stories set in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom; God’s Kingdom was the last book published before his death. If you haven’t read it, you should. If you have, you might want to read it again.
On the first read, this is a classic coming-of-age tale. Jim Kinneson is a bright aspiring writer, attending high school during the 1950s in a small town filled with unforgettable characters. Jim and the extended Kinneson clan live in Kingdom County, a fictional version of the Northeast Kingdom.
Through young Jim’s eyes, we experience struggles and strife in a village where the largest employer is a hardwood furniture mill and many neighbors work in the woods. Local folks hunt, trap, fish, tap maple trees, milk cows, and put up their own firewood.
Mosher artfully captures the culture and the landscape of northern Vermont in the 1950s. Jim learns to track deer and “walk them down” along the mountain ridges and in the bogs. He catches brook trout on flies tied by Gramps. He sees a pileated woodpecker that has chiseled a cavity into a maple tree, leaving a heap of fresh wood chips in the snow.
I love how Jim notices little details in the forest, like red-capped British soldier lichen and red maple florets on the path up to the Kinneson family camp. The camp has “God’s Kingdom” carved into the lintel, making Jim wonder whether “God’s Kingdom” refers to the camp or the country that surrounds it.
Each chapter reads like a short story. In fact, after the first few chapters, I started to wonder if they were standalone pieces in a common setting. Before long, though, I realized that Mosher was weaving an intricate web of finely wrought narratives that span several generations. Each scene shares new details of this close-knit family and sets up the action in a later chapter. Eventually, the strands come together to tell a much bigger story.
It was on the second read, however, that I began to appreciate Mosher’s true genius.
Beneath the top layer of storytelling runs a strong undercurrent of today’s most pressing social issues: racism, intolerance, and fear of immigrants and outsiders. Mosher is not afraid to lace his fiction with uncomfortable topics like poaching, religious hypocrisy, mental illness, and suicide.
At first blush, one might consider these simply to be dramatic devices. But they’re more than that. Mosher has crafted a sweeping allegory in which the “trouble in the family” that threads through the chapters is not just trouble in the Kinneson family, but within society as a whole – all of God’s kingdom.
The magic of Mosher’s storytelling lies in how we feel the dampness as Jim paddles his canoe across the bog, or how we share his anguish when he chastises himself for not taking a stand in the face of bullying and hurtful language.
The magic of Mosher’s messaging is in how he highlights virtue. For example, Jim’s father, Charles, is the editor of the Kingdom County Monitor and won a Pulitzer Prize for an editorial he wrote condemning U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. Charles is also the referee in a vicious basketball game between rival towns. Throughout the book, Charles represents the voice of reason – of tolerance and balance in a world where evil, prejudice, and temptation hide behind closed doors.
Another poignant paragon is Dr. Pliny Templeton, an escaped slave who put himself through college and Princeton Theological Seminary then founded the Kingdom Common Academy. “Dr. T” is central to the main story and to the allegorical power of the novel, which is as much about race and racial identity in America as it is about life in a small New England town.
We are fortunate that Mosher was able to complete his final book, Points North, which will pick up where God’s Kingdom left off. Publication is expected in early 2018.
That should leave you plenty of time to give God’s Kingdom a second read.
David A. Van Wie