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.
Deerfield Valley News, 1/6/2022
A Flagpole, A Flag, and the First Amendment
Bernie Lambek, An Intent to Commit. Rootstock Publishing, 2021.
As this intricately-plotted book opens, Sarah Jacobson is kidnapped at a gas station near Randolph, Vermont by a man with a gun who quietly slips into the back seat of her car, directs her to a nearby commuter parking lot, and abducts her. Readers soon learn that Sarah is the daughter of Sam Jacobson, the central figure in Lambek’s earlier novel Uncivil Liberties, and that she is the partner of Ricky Stillwell, whom Sam defended. Sarah and Ricky have moved back to Montpelier from Providence, because Sarah has been offered a job as a youth organizing coordinator for Green Mountain Black Lives Matter. Shortly after Sarah begins work, the students in her group raise a Black Lives Matter flag on the flagpole of Montpelier High School. Encouraged by the gesture, other Vermont schools begin to work towards racial inclusion, and Sarah travels to schools all over the state, helping them formulate their plans. Partly due to Sarah’s work, there is a tremendous amount of support for BLM—but at a second BLM flag-raising in June, Sarah is disturbed to find a large number of protesters outside the school gates, including a man with a White Patriots sign, illustrated by a swastika.
The backlash Sarah has seen after the summer flag-raising escalates in the fall. A gun rights group at Montpelier High demands to fly a flag supporting gun rights; when the demand is refused, a lawyer representing a gun-rights student and a group called Second Amendment Inc., sues the school. His argument is that the flagpole is a public forum, and that therefore, denying the dissenting students the right to fly their own flag, the school is violating the students’ rights of free speech. What follows, in this book as in Lambek’s previous novel, yields fascinating insight into the legal arguments that limit First Amendment rights. Is a school’s flagpole a public forum? Or is it like a school newspaper, in which certain articles inimical to the school’s purpose can be legally withdrawn? Or, in another case discussed, is a public park a public forum, or can it legally prevent certain monuments from being raised within its confines? These definitions, meticulously drawn from the law books discussed by Tad Sorowski, the lawyer for the school, Sam Jacobson, and Sam’s legal partner Alicia, whom Sarah has asked to support her BLM group, form the intellectual center of the book. But outside law offices, something nastier is going on. First Sarah, then Tad Sorowski, then a BLM student, begin to receive threatening racist and antisemitic hate mail. To defend them, Alicia takes up a case which gives the book its title: it defines a “true threat” as one that expresses “an intent to commit unlawful violence” on a person or group. Sarah’s kidnapping proves that hate mail is not a matter of free speech; it is a crime.
If Lambek’s book were concerned only with legal arguments, it would lack the pace necessary to crime fiction. Sarah’s experiences as a kidnap victim keep up the plot’s pace, and the relationship between Ricky and Sarah explores both their characters in detail. All the characters, in fact, are clearly dear to Lambek’s heart, and with reason. They are intelligent, compassionate and charming people who live in a small capital city described in such detail that readers come to feel they know every coffee shop and bakery. The warmth of the town adds background to the case: even in this friendly Vermont city, there is an undercurrent of hate that, for all the kindness and intelligence of the characters, gives An Intent to Commit a disturbing timeliness.