Horse-Drawn Yogurt: Stories from Total Loss Farm
By Peter Gould (Brattleboro: Green Writers Press, 2017 pp. 217, paper $19.95)
I had no idea what to expect when I began reading Horse-Drawn Yogurt. My expectation of libertine tales of life on a hippie commune in Vermont in the Sixties and Seventies soon gave way to the realization that I was in the hands of a master storyteller – one who knows the point of story is not always the story itself but the deeper truths that narrative conveys about who we are and why we persist amidst life’s chaos and confusion… how we hopefully migrate from naïve and youthful immortals through the realities life imposes to the hard-won wisdom and humility of age.
Gould’s tales, while visceral and entertaining, are never content to be just stories. Sometimes they express a personal epiphany, ask the unanswerable question, or portray a time in which the post-war, middle-American dream began to unravel, as young people began asking their parents and teachers questions they could neither answer nor understand. The prospect of consumer comforts, golf club membership, a new car every other year, and a lifelong job is losing its appeal to this generation, as they’re being drafted into a war that lacks any moral purpose. They see the assassinations of civil rights leaders of all colors on snowy black and white TV sets, as well as other young people sharing their doubts about the country’s direction being fired on by National Guardsmen. Gould captures this fraught time in America with the clarity of a starlit summer night in Packer Corners.
Woven through the tales is Vermont’s live-and-let-live reception of new arrivals of all sorts, the bemused welcome Vermonters generally exhibit towards the counter-culture communards buying up lost hill farms that dotted the rural landscape. Gould weaves indigenous Vermonters into his tales with respect and gratitude for their oversight, help during natural catastrophes, and their willingness to offer advice, share a warm fire or a place at the table.
The quotidian chores of splitting and stacking wood, weeding a garden, tapping maple trees and boiling sap, pressing cider, gathering eggs, baking pies with fruit raised on the commune, all become metaphors for larger truths that gyre over the narrative like red-tailed hawks. Gould suspends us between the seasonal chores of communal life, the complexities of living together in anarchic penury, rampant hormones, and the larger truths to be distilled from that experience.
He largely meets the challenge of chaptering his short stories of a different time into a virtual novella, both capturing the details of communal life and work with an impressionist’s eye and an ear for the timbre of life in the ‘60s and ‘70s in Vermont.
Horse-Drawn Yogurt is a vital and personal telling of a period in Vermont and the country at large that rises to the literary level of Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion or Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America. Few descriptions of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s transcend the monochrome lenses of political, sociological, or ecological narrative and capture the Cineramic zeitgeist of this time in America.
Writing of the Chilean singer, poet, activist, and martyr, Victor Jara, Gould (himself a stutterer) asks:
“As a stutterer, to be impelled to speak perfectly by the terrible fluency of truth: the truth of why you were born joined to the truth of what you know, what you have to tell? When you see that or hear that in people, you recognize it and it nearly stops your heart; you wonder: will that ever happen to you? How would it feel?” (p.153)
Gould answers his own question in Horse-Drawn Yogurt.
Bill Schubart is an author of seven works of fiction and currently chairs the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives, works and write in Hinesburg, VT.