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Book review: Blend of memoir, mystery is engrossing read

Book review: Blend of memoir, mystery is engrossing read

“The Great Northern Express” is a delightful and well-written mix of travelogue, memoir and mystery.

“The Great Northern Express” is a delightful and well-written mix of travelogue, memoir and mystery.

In his 12th book, Howard Frank Mosher, a Vermont novelist and former Altamont resident, opens with a sketch of his life as a boy in Chichester, a Catskill hamlet, describing the joys of growing up.

He plans to celebrate his 21st birthday with his Uncle Reg on an American literary road trip, visiting the haunts of Robert Frost, Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and others.

They never make the trip; Mosher moves away to teach and write, missing the chance to ride with his uncle before he dies.

Decades later, he is 65 and walking to the post office in his village in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. In the mail is an envelope. He thinks it is the notice that he has won the MacArthur fellowship but it is test results that show he has early-stage prostate cancer.

‘The Great Northern Express’

Author: Howard Frank Mosher

Published by: Crown Publishers, 256 pages

How much: $25

His Uncle Reg appears to him and says Mosher needs to get this taken care of right away and the experience will be “your MacArthur Fellowship.”

Mosher decides it’s time “to alter the direction of my career.”

He decides to combine a book tour to promote his novel, “On Kingdom Mountain,” with the literary road trip he and his uncle planned. Setting off in a rusty, 20-year-old Chevy with the nickname “the Loser Cruiser,” he makes 150 appearances in 100 cities, including Albany.

The “Great Northern Express” has 65 chapters, one for each year of the author’s life. The events above appear in the first four chapters. In the rest, Mosher moves capably and eloquently between his book tour experiences and vignettes from his life in Chichester and northern Vermont.

Mosher changes the names of people he meets, combines some in a single character, or adds imagined characters: his deceased uncle is a constant presence in Mosher’s car. Dr. Oliver Sacks and other authors occasionally ride along, offering wit and insight. And a mystery is woven in, as Mosher searches for a lost manuscript his uncle wrote.

I cannot explain how Mosher gets all this life, humor and adventure into 250 pages, but he does it in a wonderful way.

Each page offers at least one thing that is delightful or makes the reader stop and think. It may be the mystery of the lost manuscript. It may be that Mosher shows how much he loved his uncle and how well he and his wife, Phillis, get along. Or it may be his sadness while he seeks his literary voice as his community changes.

“But who would write the stories we were hearing. .  .  . If no one did, they too, like the little farms and big woods of this lost Vermont frontier, would soon be gone forever.”

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