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BOOK REVIEW: Uncommon Law, Ancient Roads, and Other Ruminations on Vermont Legal History

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Uncommon Law, Ancient Roads, and Other Ruminations on Vermont Legal History  by Paul Gillies
Uncommon Law, Ancient Roads, and Other Ruminations on Vermont Legal History by Paul Gillies

reviewed by Lindsey Grutchfield

As Paul S. Gillies points out in his recently published Uncommon Law, Ancient Roads, and Other Ruminations on Vermont Legal History, law is a somewhat unique phenomenon in that it is based on tradition more than reason or new discovery. A Montpelier attorney who served for 12 years as Vermont’s deputy secretary of state, Gillies expands on that theme as he gives us a highly informative account of the history of law in Vermont, a state with a rich tradition of legislation concerning fences, sheep, and the like. To give such an account, and to make the various intricacies of Vermont legal history not only understandable but fascinating to the average person, would daunt many a writer. Fortunately, Gillies more than proves his mettle as an author in tackling that task.

In some 300 pages, Gillies’ opus manages to cover such diverse subjects as the lives of well-known Vermont judges and the laws accompanying the advent of the grist mill in Vermont. Not surprisingly, the book hardly makes for light reading. Gillies condenses an extraordinary amount of information onto each page, and the information tends to be simultaneously detailed and obscure—like the laws in question, arising as they have out of necessity and common law that date from the misty reaches of Anglo-Saxon tradition. Occasionally dense as it is, however, the information in the book is interesting enough to warrant the extra mental processing needed to comprehend it.

In addition to the unexpectedly intriguing nature of the Green Mountain State’s legal history, Gillies graces his book with an extraordinary writing ability. He takes a subject that many would consider solely the domain of historians or lawyers and illuminates it for all. The results are not only informative but captivating. He narrates a battle between neighbors over a rogue sheep dog with a degree of passion more often evident in describing great historical events. He finds the drama in the small-town law so prevalent in Vermont through the years. Ultimately, Uncommon Law, Ancient Roads, and Other Ruminations on Vermont Legal History captures the essence of its topic, and does so in a way that is both reasonably easy to understand and utterly pleasurable to read.