A New Series: One Minute Reviews of
Books by Vermont Authors

 

Laura's column "One Minute Reviews" has appeared bi-weekly in Wilmington, Vermont's Deerfield Valley News since 2015. In April 2018, she found that no Vermont periodical consistently reviews all commercially published fiction and non-fiction by Vermont authors, so she started a series to fill that void. Published reviews from that series and some earlier reviews of local authors are listed with links to a scan of the printed copy. Reviews still in queue are listed without links until they appear in print.

The books reviewed in this series are available through Wilmington's Pettee Memorial Library, the Whitingham Free Public Library, and locally owned Bartleby's Books in Wilmington.




Sanctuary on a Vermont Mountain

Brad Kessler, North. The Overlook Press, 2021

The plot of this beautifully-written book concerns three people brought together by a freak May snowstorm in Northern Vermont. The first is Sahro Abdi Muse, a Somali refugee. The second is Father Christopher Gathreaux, the abbot of Blue Mountain Monastery in northern Vermont. The third is Teddy Fletcher, the grounds keeper at the monastery and a disabled veteran of the war in Afghanistan. In the book’s opening pages, the car in which Sahro is being smuggled to the Canadian border has slid off the road; Teddy, plowing before dawn, finds it and brings Sahro and her driver to the monastery’s guest house, leaving Father Christopher and the monks to decide what to do with them. Ostensibly, the rest of the plot concerns Father Christopher’s dilemma: Sahro, having learned that the judge who will hear her case has granted asylum to only two percent of the people whose cases he has heard, has cut her ICE ankle monitor and relied on volunteers to help her escape to Canada; she is thus a fugitive. How will the monastery react to her illegal flight? But this is not a plot-driven book. At its heart, it is a meditation on the idea of sanctuary, and the difficulties—physical and philosophical—that attend the search for peace and safety in a complex, violent, warming world.

The characters’ interlaced back stories, which take up some two thirds of the book, place the search for safety in personal contexts. Most poignant is Sahro’s epic journey from Somalia to Canada. Piece by piece, Kessler assembles the fragments of her life: the soldiers who kill her educated, middle class parents in her presence when she is four; her flight to her grandmother’s nomadic life; her renewed flight when drought-caused famine sends her back to her mother’s sister in the city; the violence that disrupts her schooling and kills her bookish cousin; and finally her harrowing journey to join other family members in the United States, via a route through South and Central America and Mexico. Drawing upon the experiences of the Somali refugees with whom he has worked, Kessler poignantly describes the dangers of the jungle, not the least of which is the threat of rape that forces Sahro to shave her head and dress as a boy. Safety, as Sahro discusses it with Father Christopher, is a matter of fuge, late, tace—flee, hide, be silent. The larger peace she seeks comes with her devout Muslim faith and her dream of a life without imprisonment or violence.

Fuge, late, tace, as it happens, is the inscription over the door to the monastery guest house, and as Father Christopher translates the Latin for Sahro, he tells her that they are the words of the earliest Christian monks, who fled Roman persecution to the desert so they could pray in peace. That peace is central to Blue Mountain Monastery, whose monks live apart from the world, praying but not engaging in politics or social action. Father Christopher’s backstory as an artist with mixed feelings about the world and deep religious belief is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Sahro’s, but her experiences make him doubt the intrinsic morality of contemplative life that rejects moral activity. Serious doubts come also to Terry Fletcher, who has sought peace in Vermont, but who, as a military man, has always accepted obedience to the chain of command that would naturally lead him to turn Sahro in to the ICE officials who come to seek her at the monastery.

North is filled not just with philosophical and moral quandaries, but with a wonderful sense of stories. At the end of the book, Sahro tells Father Christopher the story of a woman beset by hyenas who is saved by a little bird; he in turn tells her a legend about the Northern Spy apples he cultivates: their name refers to a man who helped the Underground Railroad by killing slave catchers. The freedom the tales extol perfectly concludes this extraordinarily intelligent and compassionate book.