David, the protagonist of Dan Chodorkoff’s insightful new novel “Sugaring Down” (Fomite Press, February 2022), is conflicted. He moved to Vermont in 1969 to be part of an activist political collective, but finds himself drawn to the quiet rhythms of the Vermont seasons. The more radicalized his comrades (and especially his girlfriend Jill) become, the more David finds true fulfillment in putting down roots.
David and friends come to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom with very little practical knowledge. Through his closest neighbors, the vividly realized Leland and Mary Smith, he gradually acquires the skills to survive. He must use them all when the collective disintegrates and he faces a winter alone.
Leland and Mary do not pass judgment on the newcomers and become a guide to much more than splitting wood and boiling syrup. They advise David and friends on what not to say to hostile individuals in town, how to behave at Town Meeting, and in general how to act so that — eventually — they might be accepted in their community.
Through Leland and Mary, we also learn some Vermont history that predates the counterculture. David has never heard about Barre’s radical history (Mary, the daughter of a granite worker, has Italian roots), or the forced sterilizations of Abenaki people during the eugenics movement, or the bulk tanks that forced Leland and Mary to give up dairy farming.
Chodorkoff is especially evocative as the reader sees each successive season — their glories and their challenges — through David’s city-bred eyes. And it was painful to this veteran of the late 1960s to relive the heated political conversations of the time. The book takes place at a time when some on the “New Left” were turning to violence, and Chodorkoff does not shy away from these upsetting themes.
Chodorkoff uses the maple sugaring process as a central metaphor, hence the title. The sap boils off (and there is furious boiling indeed) and we — and David — are left with the essence. “Sugaring Down” is a worthy addition to the growing literature about Vermont during this tempestuous time.
Rick Winston lives in Adamant, Vermont. He is the author of “Red Scare in the Green Mountains: Vermont in the McCarthy Era 1946–1960 (Rootstock, 2018). His new book, a history of The Savoy Theater, “Save Me a Seat! A Life with Movies,” is slated for Winter/Spring 2023 publication.
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