Several years ago, we hosted a talk/reading with Howard Frank Mosher for his novel Walking to Gatlinburg. Mosher has set pretty much all his work in Kingdom Country,the northernmost three counties of Vermont. Well, if not set there, then the jumping off point. Walking to Gatlinburg is a Civil War novel, with the Kinneson brothers, needless to say, fighting somewhere south of Vermont.
I knew he was on a big tour. As he had done with several events for Schwartz Bookshops, he was driving from store to store around the country. This is unusual nowadays, but not unheard of. We didn't have a huge turnout, but we our audience had a large showing of kids from Riverside High School's AP English program, who have been encouraged to come out for readings, and yes, there is extra credit involved.
Mosher was quite happy with the student showing, and I really had no idea why. I also didn't know quite how big the tour was. But all that was revealed about a year later when I learned that Mosher was chronicling the tour in a memoir called The Great Northern Express: A Writer's Journey Home, which releases today.
Now this is no oridinary book tour. Howard Frank (as he was called in childhood, as his father was Howard Hudson) is planning this trip on his 65th year, and hoped to make 100 bookstore stops along the way. This is not the frst time he's made a trek of this sort, as his 50th year is chronicled in North Country, where Mosher followed the northern border of the United States across the country.
Mosher's decided that his prostate cancer diagnosis is his own MacArthur fellowship. This trip will document the boyhood dream he had to cross the country with his Uncle Reg, visiting the locales of all the writers they loved, from Hemingway's Michigan to Faulkner's Mississippi.
And Reg is on the journey with him in spirit, as is the no good West Texas Jesus that he picked up along the way.
Though Howard Frank can poke fun at some of the characters he meets along the way, it's all done in with a touch of self deprecation too. Mosher did all the arranging himself, which is why he will now be referred to in this post as "Harold Who?", which was the way one bookstore responded to his query. He has some great events and some no shows, and if you want a get a taste for his sense of humor, read chapter eleven's encounter (It's titled "An Encounter") with an enthusiastic but misguided manager. With a touch of grace, Harold Who doesn't say exactly who this was.
But The Great Northern Express is more than a book tour. Interwoven is the fateful year that Howard Frank and Phillis settled in Kingdom Country, 1964-1965, the place where he got the inspiration for his fiction. At the time, there were characters aplenty, and he pretty much get the grand tour of inspiration. And what were Howard Frank and Phillis doing in Orleans? Yes, they arrived to be high school teachers, Phillis in science and Howard in English. No wonder he was so touched by our friends from Riverside!
And yes, Boswell gets a mention in the book. It's a good thing indeed that I've been following Mosher's journey since A Stranger in the Kingdom all those years ago and recognized him when he called, or I might have been the Harold Who? source.
We're towards the end of the story--Harold Who? s a little tired and ready to return home to Phillis. There are no fishing or battlefield detours, no tracing the steps of Edna Ferber (alas), no noting the birthplace of the typewriter. That's for another writer (Searching for Edna Ferber Amidst Broken Typewriters anyone?) But there's a lovely note about having read at Harry W. Schwartz, and being glad that Boswell was carrying on the tradition. It's the kind of thing that can get you a little choked up.
That's the kind of book The Great Northern Express is. Whether he's feasting on the many wondeful independent bookstores and booksellers on his cross-country trek or recalling all the wonderful stories that were part of his writer's inspiration, it's in a way, a salute to the writing process, the befores and the afters.
Mosher's latest journey (yes, there's another tour, but a smaller one this time) starts tonight at our friend Linda Ramsdell's Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick tonight. Keep track of it on his blog.