A reissued debut book presents a set of vignettes on life in rural Massachusetts.
“Most of the stories are true. Many, I experienced. Others are ones passed on by friends, neighbors and relatives,” writes Brown in the Preface of his collection, first published in 1982. (The author, born in 1907, died at 102.) These are folk tales in the truest sense of the word; they tell the reader not only funny or intriguing happenings, but also the everyday events of bygone years: how people went about their business and why. The stories range in time from the early Colonial days of the mid-1600s to the early 1900s, sketching out the evolution of the close-knit community of what became Fullertown, Massachusetts. The opener, “Wolf Rock,” tells of the first recorded settler of the area, John Tomson, and his perilous trip through a wild forest. “Luke Short” is the sketch of a remarkable early settler who “lived through the reign of eight British monarchs,” served in Britain’s colonial army in India, sailed across the ocean, and eventually made his way to the New World. The relationship between the native population and the settlers is explored in “The Indian Watchman,” and an influx of Acadian immigrants brings some changes to the community in “Halifax French Gardens.” On the lighter side are fishing tales like “Uncle Gus Loses His Fish,” which delivers a pretty surprising twist, and an entertaining yarn about early dentistry—“Farmer Brown Goes to the Dentist.” “Fresh Meadow Hay” and “The Gypsy Moth Hunters” aren’t so much stories as reports on how hay was harvested or the way the town dealt with moth infestations. And there are tales of communal joy, such as “The Day the Gypsies Came to Town.” A matter-of-fact storyteller, Brown pays special attention to the details and minutiae of daily life, making these vignettes uncommonly informative and in-depth even if they barely run over one or two pages. Many of the offerings display a deft comedic touch, and ironic endings abound. The effect is something like talking to an old relative about the past and listening to someone who is instantly familiar and extensively knowledgeable.
New England residents and lovers of the region’s history should find a treasure trove in this collection.