The book is a collection of interconnected short stories, not chapters in a novel, Stevenson says. Each story stands on its own, but together the collection tells a single tale. As a result, it reads like the serialized novels of the 19th century, which were published in weekly or monthly installments in newspapers and magazines.
Thankfully, readers of “Liar from Vermont” don’t have to wait a week or a month between stories. In fact, the book is hard to put down, and readers with a connection to the Deerfield Valley may find themselves drawn in by a sense of familiarity as much as they are by the story. Although it’s never mentioned specifically, the setting for much of the book is Wilmington, and Stevenson’s Boyd Hill Road house.
The book takes its title from the first story in the collection. In it, the main character, 8-year-old Peggy Hamilton, lies to her classmates at her Boston-area public school, telling them that she lives on a farm in Vermont. Despite the apparent absurdity of the lie – she quite obviously lives in a house near the school – nobody challenges her. The lie is really a fantasy based on Peggy’s experiences at the family’s summer place, an old farmhouse in Vermont. Later, in a discussion with a family friend and mentor, an MG-driving socialist and novelist who is a key character throughout the book, Peggy realizes nobody challenged the lie because they enjoyed her story too much to end it.
The story is semiautobiographical. Although Peggy, the main character throughout the collection, is not Stevenson, Stevenson says her childhood shaped the character. Like Peggy, Stevenson grew up loving her farm in Vermont, was the much younger of three sisters, dealt with the untimely death of her mother, had a love for horses, and rebelled against the constraints her mother and society wanted to place on her. And like Peggy, Stevenson can tell a tale you hope won’t end too soon.
The lying/storytelling/fantasy theme of the first story develops throughout the book. “She has a whole fantasy about where she lives, and where she belongs. She’s ahead of her time; she’s supposed to become a lady, but what she likes are farmers, horses, and shysters. The real men.”
Other characters in the book are entirely fictional, Stevenson says, although the family names, such as Bartlett, are locally-sourced. Stevenson says Wilmington readers should know that about 30% of the book is true. “And 90% of that is about the house.”
The stories are set in the 1950s and ‘60s, a time of significant transition in Vermont, which is one of the themes in the story. Peggy is distressed to see “her” Vermont changing. She, perhaps unrealistically, dreams of being a farmer while all around her fantasy world, real farms and the farming life are collapsing. At the same time, former farms are being gentrified by wealthy urbanites who are not as interested in assimilating the local culture as Peggy. The terrible irony for Peggy is that she and her family of wealthy academics are part of the trend. “Peggy resists what’s happening to Vermont, but she’s part of what’s happening in Vermont,” Stevenson says. “Their house, instead of becoming a farmhouse, even a wrecked and decaying farmhouse, becomes a Vermont summer place, which is very different.”
Although the stories are about a girl growing up with two lives, one romantic and one ordinary, the book’s target audience is adult, rather than readers of the “young adult” genre. The story subtly explores the interactions between second-home owners and locals, and Stevenson’s portrait of the meeting of the cultures is both honest and kind. “It’s not about outsiders being greeted by hostile Vermonters,” she says.
Stevenson says her presentation at Tuesday evening’s event includes a look at some of the parallels between the history of Peggy’s Vermont house and her own through photographs from 1910 to the present. Early photos show the farmhouse in all its peak glory, with the barns and outbuildings of a working farm. Later photographs show the deterioration through the Depression.
Copies of “Liar from Vermont” will be available for sale at the event, and signed copies can be preordered from Bartleby’s Books.