In 2002, Penguin Putnam published my book, The Hardscrabble Chronicles. You may have read it. It is about the quaint, rural, white-clapboard village in northern New England that I have called home these thirty years. Some people have read The Hardscrabble Chronicles and I am led to believe they liked it very much…so kind of them, really.
The Hardscrabble Chronicles is a wonderful book.
Now, for the author of a book to lay such claim may seem pompous. Perhaps I should phrase it differently.
The Hardscrabble Chronicles is a wonderful book!
You will notice I have italicized wonderful in the second instance and to make the sentence more emphatic, have added a bold exclamation mark.
But, you say, you sound even more pompous than before! What arrogance that woman has! And you would be quite correct if it weren’t for one very simple but important fact. You see, I am the author of The Hardscrabble Chronicles and really, there is a very good reason why I have purposely put myself in a position to appear to be high and mighty—which, truly, I am not. But, before I go into it, before I explain and, indeed, excuse myself, I think it would be wise if I told you something about Hardscrabble first. But then again, if you have read The Hardscrabble Chronicles, you already know—in which case, perhaps you would care to return with me now to Hardscrabble, once more.
Hardscrabble, New England
Perhaps the easiest way to locate Hardscrabble is to take out a map of New England. Now, take your finger and follow the Atlantic coastline north—not so far as Canada, of course, but nowhere near as south as Boston. Good. Now direct your finger inland, which of course means west because if you go the other way, east, you will eventually end up somewhere in Europe and then you know you’ve gone to far in the wrong direction. Although, when you think about it, most maps of New England do not include Europe anyway, so no worries there. You’ve gone too far inland if you’ve come to Vermont. Go back. Here’s where it get a bit tricky, and it won’t work unless you have a topographical map. Trace the southern boundary of the mountains—not the Green Mountains, the White ones—and stop where it sort of dips down, but not so far to touch the really big lake. You can’t miss the lake because it should be about the biggest lake on the map, or at least one of the three or four largest ones. Stay with me, because you’re nearly here. Unfortunately, Hardscrabble is such a small village that its name doesn’t appear on most maps, but you will see—and it’s quite clearly marked—railroad tracks. It isn’t actually labeled railroad tracks, but you can’t mistake it. It’s drawn like railroad tracks—a long, continuous line with little lines crossing over the long line, like stitches closing a wound. Trace the railroad tracks with your finger and Hardscrabble is at the end of the tracks.
Of course, if you’re up this ways you could always ask. But be sure you ask someone who’s wearing a soft-brimmed hat and chewing tobacco. If you come upon a person like that, with the exception of Marge Engler, who likes to chew tobacco, likely as not you’ll be asking a man. There are many men hereabouts who meet this general description, except in the summer, when some of them take off their hats simply because it’s too hot. Always friendly and easy to identify (unless it’s deer season, in which case they will be wearing blaze orange hunting hats, but their crusher will be in their game pocket), just stop and say—
“Excuse me, but can you tell me how to get to Hardscrabble?”
They’ll be very cordial, possibly offer you some chewing tobacco…but you know, I’ve got to be very honest. The answer invariably will be:
“You can’t get there from here.”
The simple fact of the matter is, it’s true. You can’t—and I’d like to explain why.
When Hardscrabble was built early in the 18th century, the lay of the town was somewhat different from the way it is today—but that’s another story. As the population increased, and as Hardscrabble grew to be a productive logging town, houses sprung up along the river, but the heart of the village, where Elm Street and Maple Street—the only two roads in Hardscrabble—meet was not along the river (though a brook does run through it.) There was good reason for this. You see, most of the big, white, clapboard houses that line Hardscrabble’s two streets were built by sea captains. They built their homes in Hardscrabble and left their wives here to raise their children while they were away on voyages upwards of a year or longer. By the time they returned home, they were sick and tired of seeing nothing but water, and that’s why they didn’t build their homes on the river or, for that matter, Loon Lake. Of course, as I said, things are different now, with waterfront property going sky-high. Hardscrabble is forty miles from the ocean (west, for reasons made clear earlier) and that’s just far enough, but not too far, for a sea captain to make his way back and forth to his ship.
Bit of a departure, but I’d like to point out one particular house, the Stockbridge house, most certainly one of the most imposing of all the imposing houses in Hardscrabble. Captain Stockbridge, intent on flaunting his wealth, built a widow’s walk, which for those of you that may not know, is a turret at the top of a house from whence wives would look despairingly out across the sea with hopes their husband’s ship would crest the horizon, would return safely home after months, years hunting whales or transporting molasses and rum and slaves from Jamaica. Of course, it was not until after the Stockbridge house was completed that Mrs. Stockbridge asked her husband why he built a widow’s walk when all you could see on high were the mountains and land-locked Loon Lake. He paused, frowned and slowly made his reply, which was, “Well, my dear, one day, God willing, you will be a widow, and when that day comes—which I hope is not for a long while—you, my dove, will have a nice little perch from which you can look to me in the heavens.”
A Letter from Hardscrabble
Well, now you know how to get to Hardscrabble and the next step, of course, is to introduce you to our thick-skinned, warm-hearted townsfolk. Each and every one is a little eccentric, several are quite eccentric, but don’t you think that rather comes from being a Yankee which, of course, means it’s almost entirely wrapped up in New England weather. Mark Twain put a point on it: “There is a sumptuous variety about the New England weather that compels the stranger’s admiration—and regret. The weather is always doing something there; always attending strictly to business, always getting up new designs and trying them on people to see how they will go. But it gets through more business in spring than in any other season. In the spring I have counted one hundred and thirty-six different kinds of weather inside of twenty-four hours.” Now, Mark Twain said that in 1876 and by God if his philosophy still doesn’t hold. Likewise, the same could be said of Hardscrabble folk. There’s a sumptuous variety of them in every way and their hearty, salt-of-the-earth, iron-willed character indeed compels a stranger’s admiration. Adult and child alike tend to business—and business in Hardscrabble is, well, serious business. Gardens to plant, sow and reap; cows and sheep to put to pasture, trees to cut, firewood to stack, children to raise, quilts to sew and dogs—so many fine dogs—to cherish and be cherished by. The profile of Hardscrabble remains unchanged across the decades and the centuries. Having endured Time, I must confess our village has not kept apace. Best said by the late, great writer Corey Ford who, when in his late ‘teens, first came to Hardscrabble from New York City, as did I, and for almost thirty years made it his home—as have I. In 1920 he wrote a friend, “Town meeting was held at the Town Hall last night. Someone made a motion to send more troops to Gettysburg. Fourteen men stood up and volunteered.” That puts a bead on it, doesn’t it? Let’s say, for argument’s sake, Hardscrabble is only twenty, even thirty years behind the times. You know what? It’s awfully nice that way.
So here’s what I’m thinking. Every day I’m going to write you a letter and post it to let you know what’s happening here in Hardscrabble. Forgive my forwardness, but I’d like to call you friend. So, each of my letters will start off in the traditional Hardscrabble manner with “Dear Frend…” Who knows…it may even remind you of your own hometown.
Now, back to the beginning. When I wrote, and I quote:
“The Hardscrabble Chronicles is a wonderful book!”
It’s not because I am the author. I’m just the one holding the pen. You’re about to enter a wonderful world, and because the people and places are real, and the goings-on are true, then I’m just the chronicler. I’ve always said of Hardscrabble that it is like Brigadoon—a sleepy, magical hamlet that rises at dawn and sets with the sun, regardless of Time, and just as eternal.
And so, dear frend, I’ll write again tomorrow. Until then—
January 13, 2010