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Nestled between Montreal, Boston, and New York City exists a magic land called "Vermont." It's a state of the union, a state of mind, a state of grace, and a state of confusion and contradiction. Because of its beauty, its scale, and its depth of culture, Vermont is truly a perfect state.
The image of Vermont that leaps off the pages of Vermont Life is one of rolling hills, small villages, white churches with soaring steeples, town meetings, and blazing foliage. But there is another side of "A Perfect State," a complex composite of dirt roads turned to Mud Season quagmires, sharply divided citizens who cannot find common ground on critical issues such as school financing, gay marriage, environmental protection, and development.
Joe Sherman portrays the last fifty years of Vermont history, a time when the state evolved from a bucolic bedrock of conservatism to a rural theme park on America's cutting edge. Whether the subject is sprawl, gourmet ice cream (Vermont is home to Ben & Jerry's), or rock and roll (Vermont is also home to the rock band Phish), Vermont finds itself at the center of the stage. Fast Lane on a Dirt Road is a raucous book about a rocky state from a perspective so fresh that controversy is unavoidable. Traditionalists will take issue with Sherman's portrayal of the state as a cauldron of social change, while newcomers might object to the homage paid to Vermont's past.
Vermont was the last state to allow in a Wal-Mart, and the first to authorize domestic partnerships. It is the only state with a Socialist representative in Congress, a state where a Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate (dairy farmer Fred Tuttle) actually voted for his better-qualified opponent.
Sherman is a journalist and a social historian more than an academic. He has not had the luxury of time to filter and clarify his observations. As he states in his own acknowledgments, "Writing contemporary history is risky business." Fast Lane on a Dirt Road is a great read for anyone interested in the rapid evolution of American culture. The quirky history of Vermont shows us both where we've been and where we're going. The rest of America can learn a lot from Vermont.
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Author Joe Sherman lives in Montgomery, Vermont, near the Canadian border. He is the author of other books, including The House of Shelburne and In the Rings of Saturn.Review:
Professor Emeritus, University of Vermont
Announcer: Are you thinking of putting up a political slogan in your dooryard? Commentator Jules Older has a book he wants you to read first.
Take back Vermont.
Fine. But before you cement that Take Back Vermont sign into your front yard and turn it into a permanent lawn fixture, lemme give you a suggestion.
Read Fast Lane on a Dirt Road by Joe Sherman. As the subtitle says, it's a contemporary history of Vermont. The original version, published in 1991, has been updated to include Vermont events as recent as Fred Tuttle's campaign for Senate and the civil union bill.
But it's the early stuff that most interested me, and should most interest you if you're thinking of turning your home into an ad for Take Back Vermont. Because Fast Lane on a Dirt Road tells you, loud and clear, what you're taking it back to. Starting with poverty. Grinding, rural, pull-yer-teeth-while-yer-young poverty. Then there's foul water - local control didn't much mind when local sewage pipes dumped directly into the stream. If you lived in a mill town, better add the relationship between factory worker and factory owner that pretty much mimicked the relationship between serf and lord of the manor. Then, toss in a government so undemocratic that Stratton, population 24, had the same number of representatives (one) as Burlington, population 35,000 (also one).
Not forgetting the poll tax-oh, yeah, Vermont had one of those-or giving the right to govern back to the land owners and taking it back from everyone else.
I'm not talking ancient history, here. In 1961 Vermont had the second lowest personal income in the country -and the third highest per-capita tax rate. And when Sherman writes, "On the farm and in the factory, workers were perceived by many as little more than beasts of burden," he was talking about the 1940s, not the 1840s. At the time, Vermont workers suffered from silicosis, asbestosis, black lung disease, limbs chewed off by unshielded machines -let's go back! Let's take it back! Those were the good old days. But Joe Sherman doesn't just view Vermont's past as an onion and the future as a rose; he's fully aware that promised roses often end up smelling like onions. He writes, " . . . a perceptive few always knew that the Gospel of Progress would have a downside. To claim that joy and goodness would come with progress, without sorrow and sadness as an equally right inheritance, was na¯ve. It was like saying a garden could grow with all sun and no rain, that manure's richness didn't stink." He's saddened by our loss of contact with the land, not by the terrible poverty that so often went with it. Sherman writes primarily about the Vermont he knew growing up the son of a mill worker in then-gritty Quechee. His book is a grand mix of his own experience, sharp-eyed interviews and careful research. And I must say, he's a hell of a writer. Take this passage: " . . . like some bucolic Renoir, Vermont, round, soft, and voluptuous, came into its own as a romantic draw."
Or consider this: "In Vermont, and across most of America, it seemed to me that tradition was like patriotism; that is, the last refuge of scoundrels. Traditional meant sentimental, it meant ignorance of the real past, it meant nostalgia for what never was."
Take back Vermont? Fine. But first read Fast Lane on a Dirt Road so you can't then say you didn't know what you were taking it back to.
This is Jules Older back in Albany, Vermont, the Soul of the Kingdom.
"Fast Lane on a Dirt Road is far and away the best overview of Vermont during the past sixty years that I have read."
-- Edward J. Feidner
"This is history with a viewpoint."
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Book Description Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2000. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M1890132748