When my first mystery came out in 1996, Kirkus Reviews wrote: “Regional fans should keep an eye out for this one.” Although it was a complimentary remark, I worried about the slightly derogatory word: “regional.” How far, I wondered, does the “region” extend for my particular setting? Is it all of New England, or just Vermont? Is it limited to Addison County in which I’ve situated my fictional Branbury–a place used in fourteen books to date?
I’m wholly at home in this Vermont town composed largely of dairy farms and apple orchards. In the mid-19th-century Victor Wright made a comfortable living with his merino sheep; he helped the nascent Middlebury College grow through gifts of steaming manure–a fact exploited by my offspring in their college application essays. A neighbor’s herd of Holstein cows grazed in the pasture behind my former house. An apple orchard, ripe with Jamaican pickers like dark birds in the trees each fall lay next door to our fifteen-acre tree farm. I helped write a town history, which included the tale of Victor’s horses running away with his gig on an icy hill, and hurling Vic off to a frosty death.
As I considered a setting for my first mystery, I thought of William Faulkner in Virginia, who drew on the local geography and family history (notably his great-granddad’s Civil War adventures) to create his now famous Yoknapatawpha County. He found it liberating to use his own “little postage stamp of native soil worth writing about.” His publisher didn’t think so, but we all know that Faulkner proved the fellow wrong.
I had already set a YA novel and a family memoir in “Branbury.” And recently I exploited my husband’s ancestors, who in 1767 walked up into Ethan Allen’s Republic of Vermont to make their pitch. A regional novel for tweens, Walking into the Wild is the story of three young siblings braving an unsettled wilderness filled with wolves, catamounts, Tories and Indians. I think of them when I travel Route 7, once the rooty “cow path” they walked.
To me Vermont had always seemed a contemporary Eden, a land of milk, honey and mountains, a garden for healing and meditation. But as I began to research, I discovered the snake in the garden. Small farmers were being forced to sell; a high school girl’s letter to the editor complained that her kid brother was being bullied in school because his boots smelled of manure when he got to class.” I put that boy in my novel and named him Vic (for victim).
In my series, Vic complains of farm chores, but grows, like his farmer mother, to love the land itself. A Boston Globe editor who reviewed my novel, said that locale should be “a reason, not merely a setting for plot,” and I agreed. Vermont is a land of extremes: ice, snow, heat, mud. Winters we huddle beside our woodstoves; when claustrophobia sets in, tempers tend to explode. The perfect setting for crimes of passion? Setting becomes character as weather, seasons, local history and landscape influence one’s actions–and not always for good. Only months ago a Vermont couple who had mowed grass for a young schoolteacher and her toddler lured them to an isolated spot, crying help. And then raped and strangled her in front of the helpless child.
My single mother dairy farmer embodies all the old New England tenets of self reliance and faith in an ideal justice. She sees her state as a kind of liberal Utopia where legislators have voted equal rights for all citizens, regardless of race or gender. She tends thirty cows, broken fences, and veggie garden, hoping for a just world. But she watches Branbury farms die off, and her town sprouting fancy restaurants and boutiques. Flatlanders build monster homes and send her own taxes to the moon.
Yet in my first mystery, Mad Season, her son Vic is kidnapped by a “local.” Hometown Vermonters differ little from out-of-staters. While researching Stolen Honey, I discovered the 1930s eugenic project, whereby poor French Canadians, Abenaki Indians, and so-called “degenerates” were sterilized in order to “breed better Vermonters.” So no, Branbury is not the mythic land of milk and honey. The archetypal apples in my favorite orchard are also prey to maggots and bagworms. Regional writers don’t need the international suspense novel to show greed, jealousy, hate, violence in the world. It’s all embodied here in our small “postage stamp.” We regionalists can address social and political contexts just as broad as any novel set in the great cities of the world.
But we can’t transplant our stories to the cities without losing the local color that makes them unique: The hills and lakes where 18th-century Green Mountain Boys once ambushed the Redcoats; the vibrant reds of autumn and the maple sap dripping each spring into the wooden buckets. Global warming may eventually kill them off, but while they last, the regional novel can dig deep into their roots.