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Howard Frank Mosher; his novels captured grit of Northeast Kingdom

Howard Frank Mosher (right) wrote five novels that were made into movies by Jay Craven.
Howard Frank Mosher (right) wrote five novels that were made into movies by Jay Craven. Globe staff file/1998

In novels that illuminated a rural landscape and the resilient inhabitants who inspired his tales, Howard Frank Mosher gave Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom a lasting toehold in literature.

And he christened the land tucked up against the Canadian border with a name that resonated in book after book. “Even today Kingdom County is an out-of-the-way and little-known fragment of a much earlier rural America,” Mr. Mosher wrote in “Northern Borders,” the 1994 novel he called his “personal favorite.”

Situated as much in the soul as it was on any map, Kingdom County was “sequestered from the rest of New England by the Green Mountains to the west and the White Mountains to the east, and further isolated by its notorious seven-month winters and poor dirt roads.”

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For Mr. Mosher, however, the land and its people were muses who stoked his creative fires through the fiercest weather. “Back in 1964, when I first came to the Northeast Kingdom, I felt like a gold miner who had hit a mother lode,” he told The Atlantic in 1997. “There were all these wonderful stories, a lot of them dating back to the Depression era and earlier, that hadn’t been written before. I was determined from the start to write them.”

On Jan. 29, a week after announcing on his Facebook page that he had been diagnosed with untreatable cancer, Mr. Mosher died in his Irasburg, Vt., home. He was 74 and had finished his final book, “Points North,” in December – writing as he always did in longhand on legal pads, sitting at the kitchen table.

Inspiration was in plain view from the first day Mr. Mosher and his wife, Phillis, arrived in Orleans, Vt., in 1964 – two 21-year-olds in town to interview for teaching jobs. “Right in the middle of the main street were two guys having a fistfight, which they suspended to let us by,” he recalled in a 2007 interview posted on Nick A. Zaino’s blog. “When I rolled down the car window and asked them for directions to the high school, they piled into the back seat and directed us there – then they got out and resumed their fight in the middle of School Street.”

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In nearly every encounter, Mr. Mosher and his wife tripped across potential characters for his fiction. Their first landlady “kept her family farm afloat during the Depression by manufacturing white lightning under the cover of darkness – then, years later, married the federal revenuer who had caught her red-handed at her still but declined to arrest her when she told him what was at stake,” he wrote in an autobiographical essay for the Globe in 1996.

The landlady, in turn, was the inspiration for Burl, the title character of a story in his 1978 collection “Where the Rivers Flow North.”

“I am not ashamed of my life, nor am I sorry to leave it. I have lived hard and full with a father’s curse and a town’s contempt, both of which I returned with interest, both of which I now cast off forever,” she says near the story’s end.

“The last of the snow has been washed away and the hills are brown through the rain. It is mud season. God’s yearly reminder to us of the clay from which we rose and to which we must return, hill people and Commoners alike.”

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Born in Kingston, N.Y., Howard Frank Mosher was a son of Howard H. Mosher and the former Helen Emily Trapp. “My first home was a ghost town,” he wrote in his 2012 memoir, “The Great Northern Express: A Writer’s Journey Home.” He was speaking of Chichester, “a dying mill town” in the Catskill Mountains west of Kingston. Still, “many of my happiest memories date from those years in the Catskills – I caught my first trout in the stream behind our house when I was 4,” he wrote.

His father was a schoolteacher who “had itchy feet,” Mr. Mosher wrote, and his family moved 10 times from when he started first grade through his first year of high school. While living in Cato, N.Y. – population fewer than 1,400 – he was in home room one day when he “looked up and noticed, coming through the door, arms laden with books, a pretty, slender strawberry blonde with the sweetest smile I’d ever seen,” he wrote in his memoir of meeting Phillis Claycomb. “We began sitting next to each other in our classes, and my early adolescent attempts at fiction were satirical portraits of teachers written solely to amuse her.”

They graduated from Syracuse University in 1964 – he with a degree in English, she in science education – and married before taking jobs in Orleans, Vt., that fall. He received a master’s from the University of Vermont and they briefly moved west when he enrolled in a University of California Irvine graduate program. After three days, “I drove hell-for-leather back to the mountains of northern Vermont and spent the next several years cutting pulpwood with an elderly trout fisherman and former whiskey runner named Jake Blodgett,” Mr. Mosher wrote for the Globe in a 1999 essay.

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He taught at Orleans High School and Lake Region Union High School in Vermont and was a social worker with needy teenagers as clients, before settling into writing full time.

His first novel, “Disappearances,” was published in 1977. The first significant review “was headlined ‘Vermont Writer Should Disappear,’ ” he recalled in the interview with Zaino. “I nailed that review up to the side of my barn, blasted the smithereens out of it with my 16-gauge shotgun – and kept right on writing.” He went on to write 12 works of fiction in all, along with two memoirs and pieces for magazines and newspapers, including book reviews and essays in the Globe.

In addition to his wife, Phillis, Mr. Mosher leaves his son, Jake, a photographer and writer in Billings, Mont.; his daughter, Annie, a singer/songwriter in Nashville; his brother, Terry of Fredonia, N.Y.; and two grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. June 2 in Irasburg United Church in Irasburg.

Though Mr. Mosher was arguably the first writer to stake a permanent claim to mining the fictional possibilities of the Northeast Kingdom, the Vermont of his novels was never postcard pretty.

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“Howard’s characters are often larger than life, highly connected to place, sometimes self-destructive, sometimes heroic,” Jay Craven, a Vermont filmmaker who based five movies on Mr. Mosher’s work, told vtdigger.com in 2013. Among Craven’s films is an adaptation of Mr. Mosher’s “A Stranger in the Kingdom,” a 1989 novel inspired by a 1968 incident in which nighttime shots were fired at the Irasburg house of an African-American minister.

Mr. Mosher’s Irasburg neighbors were upset that he highlighted an ugly episode from the town’s past, but before long they were back to offering their own lives as potential material. “When people – old-timers, mainly – tell me a story, often it’s with the hope that I might write it,” he told the Vermont weekly Seven Days in 2015. “It’s not unusual for people to come to the house and tell me stories. Sometimes I get the idea that they haven’t told many people.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.