Over the years, we've had many beguiling reports - both humorous and serious - from the literate city folk who take to the New England hills, on the scenery, the weather, the natives and their taciturn ways. But few have addressed themselves to the subtle complexities involved in the move - not only for the "transplants," as they are called in Maine, but also for the landscape in which they sink new roots.
In these spare and carefully crafted sketches of country life, Malissa Redfield, a transplanted New Yorker, brings a novelist's eye and a courteous, self-effacing diffidence to her new surroundings in rural Vermont. She looks quietly and thougfully around her, recording what she sees - not so much the surface manifestations as the meaning that lies beneath. "We have crowded the elements of a new life into these years," she writes, "and yet we are, above all, onlookers still, searching a world of life and death for signs."
She is as sparing of details about herself as the craggiest New England native. If we know that she writes novels, it is from the book jacket, not the text. We learn that her husband's name is Gil, and that they uprooted themselves from the city because "suddenly it seemed possible to leave the city, and without any serious discussion either of us can remember now, we decided to go." They headed for New England because "we supposed that was where the country was, although we came to doubt it." What they mostly found, on their ever-widening forays, were suburbs, commuter villages, resorts and "the immaculate retreats of gentlemen farmers," which was not what they were looking for . . . although they never really knew what they were looking for until they found it. Through an ad in The New York Times they found a 170-acre farm in Whitcomb, Vt., which they bought, rebuilt and lived in, and her book is a distillation of what they learned there during their first three years.
She has an uneasy awareness that both the past and the future stand in judgment of the changes they make in the house. "Gil says we built a new house," she writes. "I prefer to think that we built a new house inside the old one." She seems almost relieved that the cellar walls still drip in the spring, "a reminder," and that "the sun streams in the new windows, and the windows look outon the view just as before, reminiding us of what others must have felt for a century about the site of this house."
She senses the irony that "our building had to begin with destruction," and an early communications gap occurs when the bulldozer operator knocks down not only the silo and the sheds and the pens, but also the milk house and the doghouse - having not "gotten the word that we wanted them saved." "Fortunately," she adds, "he had gotten word not to touch the barn." With the debris cleared away, she can see the ripple effect of what they've done. "We had made our first mark, our first irreversible change. We didn't suppose even then that it mattered only to us what we did." And later she understands more clearly why they needed to keep the barn. "The barn is more than a link with the past. To preserve it is to pay homage not just to times gone by but to the life that some of our neighbors sutbbornly continue here."
As their neighborhood comes into focus, her perceptions of it change. What seemed at first to be a red tar paper shack turns out to be "not actually made of tar paper" and "has taken on, in our feelings for it, the charm of its owner." The trailer park, which they found "faintly menacing" at first, becomes "a decent place to live, from all we hear, and within the stark limitations, it is becoming a pleasant place to look at." Their neighbors up the road are prosperous; down the road they're not, and to invite them to the same gathering wouldn't work.
She also notices the intricate structure of their new surroundings - an invisible but powerful force that binds rich and poor to the scenery they inhabit. "The loveliness around all of us is common ground. The prosperous and the modestly comfortable and the struggling andd the feckless share it in a way that matters, perhaps profoundly. We and our neighbors, up and down the road, live as we can and will and know how to, and the man-made consequences vary accordingly. But the loveliness is triumphant still, the great impartial grace for every life."
She examines every event for the light it sheds on their new life - from the suicide of a young farm neighbor ("Such a death seems stranger here, where nature so visibly commands life to be lived out, than it does in the city") to the innocent pleasure of local celebrations, and the country state of mind, "shaped not by a surfeit of human contact but by its scarcity." She comes to realize that even the ugliness of the town of Whitcomb, where they've chopped down the trees to make room for sidewalks and parking lots, is "too complex for simple judgment."
Malissa Redfield died before she saw this book in print, and it's hard to read a sense of premonition into these luminous pages and a sense of sadness that these joyous years of discovery were to be her last.