Book World: Carolyn See reviews 'Walking to Gatlinburg' by Howard Frank Mosher
WALKING TO GATLINBURG
By Howard Frank Mosher
Shaye Areheart. 333 pp. $25
The year is 1864, just months before the end of the Civil War. The place is northern Vermont, in the magical and remote area of Kingdom County. The hero is young Morgan Kinneson, 17 years old, owner of a good heart and a fine hunter's eye. The Kinneson family has for some time been involved in the Underground Railroad, the last link for runaway slaves before they reach the safety of Canada. Morgan is shepherding an elderly black man, Jesse, up to the border. They are scheduled to spend the night at the Kinneson sugar camp, where maples are tapped for sap. In the gathering dusk, Morgan spots the tracks of a moose that could feed his family for an entire year. He ducks out of camp for a few minutes to track it, and when he returns, Jesse is dead.
Jesse's killers are spooky indeed. Just a few weeks before, Morgan's aunt Mahitabel, who's fond of remarking, "Laughter besmirches the creation. I detest laughter," read aloud a newspaper item about the escape from prison of five vile war criminals rumored to be -- along with their more conventional transgressions -- staunch anti-abolitionists. They include "a slave killer, a child murderer, an unfrocked minister, and a disbarred army doctor who, so far from healing the wounded soldiers under his care, had practiced vivisection upon them."
Morgan's older brother, Pilgrim, a doctor in the Union Army, has been declared missing after the Battle of Gettysburg, but Morgan is convinced his brother is alive. Morgan has been planning a trip south to find him, but now the task turns into a double one: He must also find those responsible for Jesse's death. One dastardly villain remains unmentioned by the newspaper, a monster named Ludi Too, who plays a homemade zither to charm his victims and decorates his body with a still-rank bearskin, the bear's head draped fetchingly over his own. The plot is further thickened by the presence of hand-carved runic letters or characters, which are said to derive from figures that old Norse explorers carved into ancient Vermont stone outcroppings. These runes have evidently been co-opted as markers by those running the Underground Railroad.
Morgan will encounter many picturesque characters on his fateful walk to Gettysburg -- and beyond, to Gatlinburg, Tenn. -- during that last year of the war. He meets an astonishingly articulate, disemboweled Gypsy (recently assaulted by the vivisectionist and somehow still alive) and his elephant, which weeps copiously at his owner's injuries and turns out to be a great help in towing canal boats. Morgan makes friends with a little girl who wears a shift made largely of goose down and feathers. This girl very much recalls the feral female child in the latter pages of Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove." In fact, much of this novel reads like the third quarter of that monumental piece of American literature. Morgan also meets a nice woman who's been shunned by her brother, although despite shunning her he has pitched in to build her an attractive tree house on an island in a river. That locale recalls Huck Finn, and later on, when Morgan meets a beautiful runaway slave girl, he and she get lost in a cave, much like Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher. The whole novel, it seems, is a homage, not only to American life of the past but to American literature as well.
The conflicts set up here are vast. Both Pilgrim and Morgan are familiar with the theory of evolution; both doubt Scripture. But Pilgrim, after participating in the horrors of war, has decided to become a pacifist. Morgan still struggles with the necessity for violence. After all, those five sociopaths are only the tip of the iceberg; the war has been like a great stone, turned over to reveal everything creepy and crawly in American life. If any people in this narrative can be said to be good, they are Morgan and Pilgrim, but their consciences torment them. The five criminals, on the other hand, are as carefree as trout. Evil would seem to be more than welcome in this bad old world, and how do good people fight it, except by violence?
At one point in his prolonged travels, Morgan spies President Lincoln, having alighted from a passing train, in the process of answering nature's call. "The water closet in my carriage is out of order," the president explains, to which Morgan tartly replies, "What isn't?" And indeed, the whole country seems largely to have arrived in hell, snugly wrapped into the proverbial hand basket. But "Walking to Gatlinburg" is less about the realities -- or fantastical fictions -- of the war and more about Morgan's coming-of-age drama.
Howard Frank Mosher has been writing about the Kinneson family in one way or another for years. He has said that the larger-than-life villain, Ludi Too, the zither-playing madman draped in the rank bearskin, is based upon his own great-great-grandfather, who endeavored to blow up his family but succeeded, fortunately, only in blowing up himself. For loyal followers of the doings of the Kinneson tribe and the long literary career of Mosher himself, "Walking to Gatlinburg" will be a welcome treat.
See reviews books regularly for The Post.
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