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The Simple Life
by Stephen Morris
In November the leaves have fallen, the grass has died, and snow has not yet sanitized the landscape. The world is a study in subtle hues of brown and gray. This is one of the few times of the year when you can see the rocks, bark, and lichen, the earth in its natural state. In its own way it is quite beautiful. A November Book
The Simple Life by Ruth Porter is a book that nails the rural Vermont experience "dead nuts on" as character Sonny Trumbell might express it. This is a Vermont that Vermont Life sweeps under the rug, because it ain't pretty. This the Vermont of doublewides, shadowy characters, and human vulnerability that you can find on dirt roads everywhere, but never on the cover of Vermont Life...
Ruth Porter has the credentials for writing about the hardscrabble experience. Although raised in a small town in Ohio, she and her husband Bill operate a small farm in Adamant (doesn't that sound like a name from a novel?) where they raised their four children, now grown and on their own.
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"We grew all our own food," she says. "We had cows, horse, chickens ..." and, she adds, a team of oxen.
The oxen are central to the story of The Simple Life. Characters Isabel and Jeff are taking what they think is a shortcut to a 25th reunion at Green Mountain College when they encounter the scourge of Vermont spring, mud. Soon their car is mired in ooze, as is their relationship. Along comes Sonny Trumbell, owner of a hillside farm, to liberate them. Rescue comes in the form of Buck and Ben, Sonny's team of ox, who slowly and methodically extricate the couples blue Honda from the muck.
He picked up his whip and walked to the front of his team. Holding whip high he said, "Come up," softly. He walked backwards away from the oxen, and they walked slowly, steadily toward him while the car slid silently behind. There was no straining, no drama, no loud noise, only soft, sucking sound of the mud and then the gritting of the oxen's feet on the dry part of the road. When the car was out of the mud hole, the old man lowered his whip so that it hung in the air in front of the huge noses. "Whoa,' he said in a deep, but quiet voice.
The experience affects the forty-something couple in polar opposite ways. Jeff wants to throw money at Sonny and get-the-hell-outta-here, while the sights, sounds, and smells of the moment are indelibly imprinted on Isabel.
A year later the couple are divorced and Isabel has come to Severance (almost as good a name as Adamant), Vermont to start a new life. A stranger comes to town ... this is the classic premise for at least half the stories ever written.
The Simple Life was more than ten years in the writing. Ruth Porter was never trained to write novels. She holds no relevant degrees. She has never attended a writer's workshop or been a member of a literary society. She has read a lot, mostly the classics. But she observes and listens very carefully.
The book is a labor of love. At one point, Ruth confesses, she read the book backwards, so that she could proof it without being distracted by the flow of the story. When the manuscript was finally finished, she considered the commercial publishing route, but it seemed more consistent with the traditions of hardscrabble farming to do it herself, following the models of Peter Miller, Burr Morse, Con Hogen, and other Vermont self-publishers. The package she has produced is highly professional, tightly written and pleasingly designed. The chapters are introduced by the author's photographs that are, like her writing, solid and straightforward.
If you live in Vermont (outside of Chittenden County) you can't help but recognize the characters. There's Leroy LaFourniere, the realtor of French Canadian descent, who tilts between romantic and sleazy both in his business dealings and personal life. Roxy Fox is the landlady who has a heart of gold, but also a tendency to find herself on the wrong side of the tracks. Sonny lives on his hillside farm with his grand daughter Carol Ann, who is married to motorhead, Raymond. She works at the local diner; he relates better to engines than people. And then there is "Al," short for Alison, the tomboyish fourteen year old daughter of Carol Ann and Raymond, who has a deep connection with her "Gramps" (Sonny) and his team of oxen. You know all these folks.
Isabel returns to Severance to start a new life and to fulfill a calling. She gets a room at Roxy's, and a part-time job in Leroy's real estate office. The stage is set for the story to unfurl.
The Simple Life is no light-hearted romp through the Green Mountains, but a deliberate and meticulously detailed story that moves stolidly forward at oxen pace. The lens thought which the author views life in Vermont is not romantic, amusing, or ironic. The people are stooped, overweight, and smoke. They have doomed affairs. They make poor decisions and pay the consequences.
The life depicted here may be simple, but it's also stark and bleak, like November, leaving us on the precipice of winter. The Simple Life is a reminder to get your wood in early. What comes next is long, dark, and cold.
Stephen Morris is a writer and publisher. He is the founder of The Public Press (www.thepublicpress.com) and editor of Green Living.
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