November 23, 2008
By A.C. HUTCHISON
“The Lamoille Stories: Uncle Benoit’s Wake And Other Tales From Vermont,” by Bill Schubart (White River Press, 2008, 200 pages, $15 paperback)
Radio personality Garrison Keillor has gained considerable fame and fortune by telling stories about a fictional town in Minnesota he calls Lake Wobegon. Compared to Keillor, Bill Schubart may be relatively obscure (although he’s well known locally as the former chairman of the board of Fletcher Allen Health Care), but his folksy stories about Lamoille County back in the 1950s and ’60s are every bit as amusing and satisfying as the tall tales told by Keillor.
In fact, to a Vermonter, Schubart’s stories may be far more enjoyable because his characters and places ring so true in terms of local culture and geography. They’re far more familiar than Keillor’s fantastic yarns about the Norwegian bachelor farmers and the brooding Lutherans who populate his imaginary Lake Wobegon.
In the hands of a less gifted, less sympathetic writer, Schubart’s characters might come perilously close to being the object of derision rather than affection and amusement. The people who come alive in this 22-story collection are charmingly eccentric, stubbornly independent and, importantly, the stuff of local legend. And so, if any of Schubart’s characters are vulnerable to the slightest sneers, it would be those who come from “away,” as in the case of the man who simply wants to buy a woodstove for his A-frame but to do so must deal with a reclusive old man who stores them in a remote field under blue tarps.
Schubart’s stories (and keep in mind that while most of the characters and events are fictional, they are often based on real people and events) are the kind that he would have you believe were told on Saturdays at Lyle’s Dump – what today we would call a sanitary landfill – in Morrisville. Schubart writes that Lyle Bohannon would arrive at 6 a.m. and remain there “until well after dusk, depending on the day’s harvest and who showed up with hooch.”
Schubart grew up in Morrisville, in the heart of Lamoille County, and went on to become an entrepreneur in the recording industry and e-commerce.
Yet the people of his stories are not the kind to be found wearing suits and ties (except for a funeral or wake). They are the kind who somehow know how to do things by relying on their intuition and that commodity we tend to refer to as common sense.
Perhaps out of sheer necessity more than preference, these Vermonters, some of them of French Canadian descent, are improvisers, supremely confident that they’ll figure out a way to solve their problems without requiring the involvement of well-paid specialists or, especially, the newcomers who ride around in Volvo station wagons, build fancy ski lodges and shop in the state’s larger communities.
These are the people to whom Act 250 was (and may still be) a legislative abomination, a woeful example of the government telling them what they can and cannot do with their own property. They are sometimes (although not in this book) referred to as “woodchucks,” and in modern times you might find a “Take Back Vermont” sign nailed to a tree near the entrance to their driveways.
One of the funnier stories involves three youngsters named Chris, Jim and Mike who, just to engage in some harmless mischief, sneak into a church and replace the recorded church music that emanates from its steeple every evening with The Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout.” The trio then repairs to a distant vantage point to listen to the resulting sounds.
They are kept waiting because they didn’t properly align the timing mechanism, but their larger problem is that they cranked the volume up too high.
Of course, in a small town everyone immediately knows who the likely culprits are, and soon enough they are taken into very gentle custody. Now the three have to worry about the possibility their mischief – if harshly punished – will keep them out of college or the military.
“As so often happens in Vermont towns, the town split down the middle on the issue of retribution,” Schubart writes. “The buzz ran the gamut from outrage to chortles … some thought the whole matter harmless while others were ready to haul the stocks out of the Stowe Historical Society.”
Actually, their crime – if that’s what it was – pales when compared with the dirty deeds of the person in one town who views any new mailbox as deserving of intense vandalism. And should the owner take extra precautions to preserve his new receptacle, the vandal accepts that as an irresistible challenge. A newcomer – the same chap who wanted to buy a woodstove – is dismayed to discover that everyone seems to know that some fellow named Bucky is the culprit but nobody does anything about it.
This is not a book to read in one sitting, though that would be easy enough to do. It is a collection of stories to be savored, one or two at a time. They’re the kind of stories you may want to tell your friends and neighbors about, because they’re about Vermonters and they’re a reader’s delight.
A.C. Hutchison retired as editor of The Times Argus in 1999.