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  • Eternal Outsider
  • Hannah S. Hess (bio)
Liar from Vermont
Laura C. Stevenson
Brigantine Media
Pages; Print, $14.95; eBook, $8.99

I first encountered Laura Stevenson’s work through Return in Kind (2010), which I thought a most impressive, intelligent, and riveting work. Liar from Vermont, though a very different novel, more than lives up to its predecessor. The liar in the title, Peggy, is the seven-year-old daughter of a Michigan academic who moves the family to Cambridge where he is a visiting professor at Harvard for a year.

Unhappy in her new school, where “we said prayers before class, just as if that were normal, and the chairs were bolted to the floor in rows, too far away from desks that were too high, so we couldn’t see anyone but the teacher,” and “where I had never seen perfectly quiet children before—at John Dewey we’d been encouraged to express ourselves.” Peggy tells her teachers and classmates that she lives on her family’s 100-acre Vermont farm, and while the family does, in fact, have such a farm, it is obvious that they don’t live there. When the school principal sends Peggy’s mother a note detailing the child’s fiction, she becomes the focus of a lively dinner table discussion, where one of the guests, a psychiatrist, loudly suggests “a dreadful condition that started with ‘skits’ and had something to do with dreaming off.” Another of the guests, Mr. Zander, who, in Peggy’s pantheon ranked “third in line after God and Grammy, tells her she’s done something extraordinary: she’s told a story that has held the attention of a whole school for six weeks. It is, he tells her, like Homer and the Odyssey (c. 700 BCE), the book her father (to whom she refers throughout the novel, only as the Great Man) has just translated.

During the summer, the family does, in fact, live on the farm, and it is through Peggy’s eyes, over the span of the eleven years the novel encompasses, that we see and feel and smell Vermont. She becomes friends with Joan and John Bartlett, the neighbors’ children, and gets to help with haying, herding cows, and riding on a tractor. She also falls in love with horses and longs for a horse of her own. While the Great Man and Mother point out why this is impractical, she does, eventually, get to ride another neighbor’s horses over the course of several summers and so befriends Jake, a rider for one of the area’s horse dealers. Through these friendships, she becomes more keenly aware of class differences when during the Vietnam War Jake is drafted, and the Harvard boys who come to play tennis on the court the Great Man has built on the farm at the urging of his sons-in-law are not. When Mr. Bartlett dies of a heart attack and Peggy and her family go to the funeral, it is apparent that they, the summer people and academics, are outsiders. And yet, when riding their other neighbor’s horses, Peggy realizes that to that neighbor, a wealthy “flatlander,” her family are merely hired help. When asked in class to name her role model, Peggy cites Mr. Bartlett: who never raised his voice but was a war hero who was so strong he could throw a bale of hay to the top of a loaded truck or pick up a sledgehammer by the end of its shaft and raise it straight to the side.

Her classmates’ choices, listed on the blackboard in two columns, one for boys (football and baseball stars, drummers, presidents, and generals) and one for girls (including Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, and Annette Funicello) make her realize, at the age of twelve, that “Not Fitting In was my permanent condition.”

As she grows older she becomes increasingly aware of this, both in Vermont and at Bradley Academy, to which she is sent when her mother becomes ill; although, in the family tradition of avoidance, this has only been hinted at. At Bradley she is again made painfully aware of her...


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