Paul Michael Garrison
Howard Frank Mosher, through God’s Kingdom in particular, has drawn frequent comparisons to Mark Twain, and with this book’s rustic charm, strong sense of place, and episodic nature, it’s easy to see why. But in some respects, structurally at least, this book owes a greater debt to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Both books revolve around the coming of age of a young newspaperman who also is (or will be) a story writer. Both Anderson’s George Willard and Mosher’s Jim Kinneson seem to be favored sons of the town, frequently taken into counsel by various townsfolk, casting a wider net for stories.
While Mosher’s book is called a novel, it could more accurately be termed a collection of interconnected stories, like Winesburg, Ohio, in which the protagonist sometimes takes prominence but just as often serves as the observer or recorder to someone else’s story. In God’s Kingdom, this could be Jim’s fishing buddy/principal or a fellow player on his baseball team. The events of one chapter (or story) rarely effect (or even affect) the events in the next. For example, one chapter relates the tragic demise of one of Jim’s friends, and the next notes this occurrence only in passing. The tragedy is, in essence, contained to a single story. Perhaps the scope of the book, which takes Jim from age fourteen to the day he leaves for college, shows the fleeting impact that events have on a life.
The stories’ connective tissue comes from a traditional chronology, a unity of setting, and a tight familial cast. The other thread woven through the collection is “the trouble” in the Kinneson family’s history, which refers to how Jim’s abolitionist great-grandfather shot his best friend Pliny, an emancipated slave who served as the town’s historian. Rather than a separate story, the final chapter acts as an epilogue unraveling this historical mystery. Though consistently referenced through the stories, the mystery is not a driving force to the action of any. Because the final revelation pertains to people outside these main narratives, it isn’t truly compelling. It does, however, give the book a sense of conclusion, a commodity not to be overlooked in today’s literature, and it provides Jim Kinneson with his true birthright, a needful thing for a young man heading into a bigger world.
The frequent delving into family and personal histories along with the book’s 1950s setting suffuses the book with a feeling of nostalgia, both warm and regretful. And the book’s warmth distinguishes it sharply from Winesburg, Ohio, in which nearly every page is fraught with existential dread. Unlike George Willard, Jim Kinneson bears a deep and abiding love for his family and his home, and this is the ultimate source of the book’s warmth.
Family and place, the two elements in the book so intertwined as to almost be one. As Pliny says, “In the Kingdom, all history was Kinneson family history” (213). Kingdom Common and the surrounding forests, lakes, and rivers—the nature of rural Vermont—this is the true subject of the book. Mosher carefully renders Jim’s home, its history and beauty and even its ugliness—and the ugliness is there. Just as the book does not pass over the darkness in the Kinneson family history, it does not ignore the darkness of 1950s Vermont. The book makes much of the endemic racism of the era and of America’s settlement, but what it documents more subtly and painfully is the destructive force of petty tyranny, showing it at work in nearly every corner of small-town life—government, education, and workplace. Even with its faults, when Jim sets off for college, he grieves to leave Kingdom Common—because it’s home. Mosher has artfully built the relationship between this particular boy and this particular place so even if the reader hasn’t experienced that homesickness—though most of us have—the pain feels true. But we know going forward that Jim will carry home and its stories with him.
Howard Frank Mosher
St. Martin’s Press