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New Voices

02/06/02 12:00AM By Tom Slayton

Nick Howe had his audience totally captivated. More than 100 listeners leaned tensely forward in their seats, eager for every word. His tale had all the elements of high drama -- human nobility, nature's unremitting fury, a tragic death -- and Howe told it well.

"We try to make life safe," Howe said. "But there do come times when you're really up against it-- when you have to make a decision of life or death."

The story was his account of the death atop Mount Madison of MacDonald Barr, and Howe actually read most of it from his book, "Not Without Peril," an account of disasters that have, over the years, befallen hikers on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire's White Mountains. Yet he could have been retelling the horrific tale around a campfire; The atmosphere in the Chester Unitarian Church was that focused and intimate.

Howe was only one of six writers who read their work that Saturday. Also on hand were novelists Elizabeth Inness-Brown, Marc Estrin, John Griesemer, Heidi Schmidt, and Robert Harnum. The day-long event was called "New Voices for a New Year," and it was a mini festival of New England literary talent, another example of the incredible cultural richness Vermont has to offer. In this case, the offering was actually made by the Misty Valley Bookstore of Chester, which has sponsored the "New Voices" readings for the past eight years. The bookstore changed hands this year, and thank goodness that the new owners, Lynn and Bill Reed, have decided to continue working with publishers to underwrite the readings. It's a real literary gem.

Though Howe was the only writer of non-fiction to read at the event, his tale of mountaintop tragedy was full of literary merit. You could hear the audience gasp and groan as Howe described the savage White Mountain storm, the gale-force winds, ice and rain that drained the warmth and eventually life itself from Don Barr, the desperate attempts at rescue, and the quiet heroism of the young men and women in the Madison Springs Hut who recovered and saved Barr's companion.

Each writer struck his or her own personal tone. Elizabeth Inness-Brown of South Hero read from her novel, "Burning Marguerite," a tender, affecting tale of a n older woman who adopts and cares for a young child.

Marc Estrin read from his very different book, a witty, imaginative tour-de-force entitled "Insect Dreams." It has been described as "an insider-cockroach's view of the 20th Century" because its main character, Gregor Samsa, is a six-foot cockroach, hiding in Franklin D. Roosevelt's kitchen. Estrin's inspiration for the book and the cockroach character was the Nicolai Gogol short story, "Metamorphosis," in which Gregor first appears.

The readings by novelists John Griesemer and Heidi Schmidt were witty and intense. Robert Harnum happened to mention that he wrote his novel "Exile in the Kingdom," in French first and then re-wrote it in English. That led to a question from the audience: had he actually rewritten the book, or simply translated it? And that led Harnum into a fascinating discussion of the difference between English and French as languages - the long and short of it? Harnum didn't translate his book because that would have been impossible. He rewrote it.

At the end of the long day of readings, I felt that my torpid, mid-winter brain had been given a much-needed therapeutic massage. All these ideas circulating in the fresh Windsor County, Vermont, air; all this terror, hunger, joy and wit!

In opening the "New Voices" readings, bookstore owner Lynn Reed had declared: "I see evidence every day that reading is still alive in our area, and as long as we are reading and thinking--we're OK!"

She's right, of course. Reading and thinking are two touchstones of a healthy interior life -- and the New Voices readings in Chester are certainly evidence that -- even in the depth of a long winter-- the life of the mind is alive and well in Vermont .

--Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life Magazine.

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