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Book Review

‘Mud Season’ by Ellen Stimson

Ellen Stimson moved her family from St. Louis to Dorset, Vt. — a dream made laughable as it turned sour.

NATALIE STULTZ

Ellen Stimson moved her family from St. Louis to Dorset, Vt. — a dream made laughable as it turned sour.

Married with three kids and a career, Ellen Stimson would have seemed to be a fairly settled person before she and her husband decided to move from St. Louis to Vermont — not following a job or after years of research, but more or less just because they liked it there.

The family “went shopping at the Life Store,” as Stimson puts it, and “picked rolling mountains, roadside streams, and wooded knolls.” Settling in tiny Dorset, they bought a big old house in need of big renovations and filled it with their kids, dogs (adding a few dogs), and a newly purchased brood of hens (one of which turns out to be a rooster).

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Oh, and just to make their trip to the Life Store more thrilling, they purchased the town’s venerable general store. And more or less ran it into the ground.

Along the way, Stimson picks up a couple of orphaned lambs, alienates the local minister, and runs out of gas waiting for a herd of cattle to cross a muddy rural road. Then there are the locals — true Vermonters and veteran summer people — all of whom seem fairly intimidating, especially when it comes to the store. After she and her husband make even small changes to a beloved local institution, she learns, “the town was just a little bit annoyed with us.”

Stimson is endearingly cranky on the subject of the store. Formally named Peltier’s after its original owners, its name in her mind is soon the Horrible Quaint Country Store. The time during which Stimson and her long-suffering husband run it sounds like an excruciating experiment in failed cross-cultural marketing.

She envisioned farm tables of Bennington pottery and organic wool socks; the locals boycotted her for moving the bread. A customer drove off while tethered to one of the gas pumps, causing environmental disaster, while in a separate incident the boiler failed and left the street a temporary ice rink.

When she and her husband finally decide to sell the place, they field a surprising crop of offers — “there were more people interested in buying a failing country store than there were customers interested in buying bread and crab cakes” — though none represents a profit.

Stimson’s debut memoir of her first few years in Dorset reads like Erma Bombeck meets E. B. White (with a dash of Elizabeth Gilbert thrown in). She’s a natural storyteller and openhearted lover of her family, her animals, her big chaotic life.

At the same time, her self-deprecation can veer close to bragging — even as she bemoans her love of pretentious artisanal cheeses, she seems to be able to afford them. And after all, how many people can afford to move to a new part of the country without a job, or any concrete plan for, as she puts it, “how to make a living up here”? Privilege is fairly baked into the notion of actually enjoying raising chickens.

What redeems the book is Stimson’s ready humor and genuine affection for Vermont’s natural beauty and human oddities. Not everyone likes this sort of thing — if you find yourself switching off Garrison Keillor, for instance, this may not be the book for you — but those readers whose yearnings tend toward bucolic adventure will relish hers.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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