Andrea Reads America: Vermont

Andrea Reads America books set in Vermont
Andrea Reads America: Vermont

New England! These books made me miss New England, especially since it’s so hot outside right now. I was happy to immerse myself in winter pages of Vermont, and cozy up in the cottages in New England towns there.

The Secret History book cover Novel: The Secret History
Author: Donna Tartt, attended Bennington College in VT
Setting: 1990s in a private New England college in Vermont

I ♥️ Donna Tartt. The Secret History, set in the 90s on the campus of an exclusive private school in Vermont and at the “country house” of one of the students, is a story I am still reeling from, and still trying to piece together.

The idea of losing control is one that fascinates controlled people such as ourselves more than almost anything. All truly civilized people — the ancients no less than us — have civilized themselves through the willful repression of the old, animal self.

It wouldn’t be a true New England college book if it weren’t set on the campus of an elite — or at least expensive — campus, now would it? Told from the point of view of a Californian, Richard, who applied to the school because he liked the pamphlet, The Secret History follows his entry into an exclusive group of five other students who study ancient Greek under the tutelage of Julian, a teacher who does not take new students, and who takes near sole responsibility for the instruction of the students he has collected: they take classes from no other.

Richard earns their respect in the library one day and slowly makes his way into their inner circle. He soon finds they are deeply rooted in high intellectual thought, rich carnal pleasures, and the exploration of ancient mysteries. They live what they study, from speaking ancient Greek, to Bacchanalian rites, to murder and the vivid feeling of being alive after such acts. Richard, a bystander but not a player, goes along with it all: out of a sense of pride, of finding a group he wants to belong to, or simply because of his “own fatal tendency to make interesting people good.”

I loved this book. It is both beautiful and terrible. It is full of the brutal pain of cold and sorrow, and the euphoria of feeling: of being susceptible to beauty, to the colors of life, to the sense of understanding, and to the sense of belonging.

Midwives book cover Novel: Midwives
Author: Chris Bohjalian, lives in Vermont
Setting: rural Vermont in winter

During a winter storm that turns roads to black ice, a woman’s labor fails to progress during a home birth. Weakened by ill health and unproductive pushing, she appears to have a stroke after hours of pushing. The woman is dead, and the midwife, Sibyl Danforth performs a C-section with a kitchen knife to save the baby. Only, her novice assistant doesn’t believe the laboring mother was dead when the C-section was performed, and so Sibyl, the midwife, is put on trial.

Having birthed both of our children in birth centers attended by midwives rather than at hospitals attended by ob-gyns, I was impressed by how well the author presented the choice to give birth outside of a hospital (thought he didn’t go much into why many women choose against the hospital), and how the medical establishment treats women and families who make that choice. This was a fascinating look at both perspectives, though I wished it would have covered more of why families choose to birth at home or birthing centers rather than at hospitals.

My Garden book cover Book: My Garden
Author: Jamaica Kincaid
Setting: Jamaica Kincaid’s garden in Vermont

Set in Vermont in the author’s garden primarily, but also in flashbacks to her home country of Antigua and a plant-collecting trip to China,  My Garden is Jamaica Kincaid’s thoughts, opinions, and meanderings on plants. Some chapters contain interesting insights about how plants raised for gardens and human pleasure have made their way around the world, and how botany and botanists have played into the history of the society and culture. Other chapters are simply Kincaid writing about plants she adores.

I didn’t love this book. It didn’t seem to care about the reader. However, there were several gardening related passages that I could absolutely relate to, like the wonder and delight that anything I should plant might actually grow:

Even after many years of gardening, I never believe a live plant will emerge from the seed I have put in the ground; I am always surprised, as if it had never happened to me before, as if every time were the first time.


That gardener, any gardener, is not a stable being; that gardener, any gardener, is not a model of consistency.

That second line resonated with me and made me feel like a real gardener. Before reading it, I felt amateur and fickle for not being able to get things right the first time. I’m constantly examining to see how things grow, whether they work where I put them, and then move stuff. Not getting it right the first time used to make me feel like a failure, and now I realize it’s just part of being a gardener.

Guest post: Moving to Vermont

Map: Vermont setting of “Moving to Vermont” by Susan B. Apel

This is a guest post by Susan B. Apel who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is Vermont. Enjoy.

After two days of driving, we crossed the border into Vermont. Having deviated from the map some time back, we were lost. When we acknowledged this to each other, Josie said, “Who the hell cares? Look at this. Vermont is the first place I’ve been that actually looks like its postcard.”

The beauty of Vermont is rife with clichés, but trust me. When I arrived to make Vermont my home, I thought that those green hills really do roll, and white steeples rise above perfectly rectangular town greens. The decrepit old barns sag gracefully, and you just know that each has more stories to tell than you will ever hear.

That’s the window dressing. Lovely as Vermont is on the outside, its internal beauty is the treasure worth finding. Strangers who noticed my Pennsylvania license plate welcomed me to the state, as if each individual thought it a duty to assume the role of greeter-in-chief. Neighbors had advice, about winter and how best to survive it. There was even a bartering economy—what would otherwise have been staid commercial dealings transformed by human haggling.

I spent Saturdays driving around, from town to town, with purpose, or through back unpaved roads with no purpose at all. In late summer, I came upon a farm with a large farmstand, vegetables damp with dirt, piled on plywood trestle tables splintered at the edges. I stopped. It felt like a ghost farm, no one in the fields, the house somewhat removed and vacant.

I picked up several items and stood, my hands stretched around the unwieldy bunch, waiting for someone. I waited twenty minutes and had decided that the stand was not open, and I should just put everything back and drive away. And then I saw a small tractor sputtering across the field toward the stand; the driver, an elderly woman who resembled the tables in that splintered around the edges kind of way, didn’t hurry, didn’t apologize. After nodding in my direction, she stopped and busied herself with the tractor.

My hands growing numb from holding the vegetables, I finally spoke, asking if I could pay her. She wiped her hands on her field apron and looked a little surprised. She asked how long I had been waiting. She and her family owned the farm, she told me, and there was seldom anyone available to sit at the stand and wait for customers.

She then proceeded with the rookie’s tour. The vegetables were priced by the piece or by the pound. She showed me the scale. There were used paper bags stuffed in a bin, a calculator for the math-challenged and a cup of pencils for those who might actually want to do the math. She stood back while I calculated my total of seven dollars.

Finally, there was an old cigar box, in full view, on a small wooden counter. Just open it and make your change, she told me. I did. I saw about a hundred dollars in cash. She wasn’t even watching while I put in my twenty and took out some smaller bills in exchange. My urban-raised self had only one thought: someone could so easily drive here and grab the entire cash box and go.

The tour was not over. She said, you might come in the morning when there isn’t enough in the cigar box to make change. She reached under the counter for a metal tackle box, pulling me around to make sure I saw where it was. She explained, this is mostly for the bigger bills, you know, fifties, hundreds. She opened the box. I didn’t want to gawk, but did, and saw several hundred dollars.

I thanked her, preparing to leave. So, she said, now you know where everything is. You don’t need to wait around for anyone next time. She was busying herself once more with the tractor, and I hesitated, but finally asked. “Aren’t you ever afraid that someone is going to steal your cash?” immediately regretting it, thinking she must have been asked this many times. Maybe not. She answered simply, “No.” I must have looked just a little incredulous, because she shrugged, stuck out her lower lip, paused to think, and added, “Hasn’t happened in over thirty-five years.”

Susan B. Apel is a professor of law at Vermont Law School. Her work has appeared in numerous legal and interdisciplinary journals, reviews and two anthologies, as well as in the Bioethics Forum of the Hastings Center, Dartmouth Medicine, InTravel, and The Shriver Report. She has been a featured guest contributor to Gender and the Law Blog, and has her own blog, A Woman of a Certain Age. She currently lives in Lebanon, NH.