The late, great essayist on life with cows, maple syrup, woodstoves, and the neighbors who cherished them all
Best Person Rural: Essays of a Sometime Farmer. By Noel Perrin. Selected and with a foreword by Terry Osborne. Godine, 175 pp., $24.95.
What book would you give to friends who yearn to live amid covered bridges, weathered red barns, and church suppers to which nobody brings a dish that includes rumaki? I’d give Best Person Rural, a collection of two dozen of the most memorable essays by the late Noel Perrin, America’s unofficial laureate of rural life in the late 20th century.
Perrin died on November 21, 2004, after a distinguished but unpretentious life as a professor of English at Dartmouth College and 41-year resident of a Vermont farm graced by apple trees, stone walls, and a sugarhouse. And no eulogist summed up his work better than Robert Wilson, editor of The American Scholar, who said he might have had “the best plain prose style in America.” There is nothing fancy about Perrin’s writing on topics like calving, maple sugaring, and woodstoves. But neither is there any affected folksiness or sentimentality about life on a New England farm.
In Best Person Rural, Perrin admits that Vermont has a “rotten climate.” A fine old covered bridge “secretly rests on new steel I-beans, set in concrete.” And he once saw “a storekeeper spend half an hour taking crackers out of plastic-sealed boxes and putting them in the barrel he thinks summer visitors expect him to have.” His writing has an authenticity that sprang from loving New England enough to want to pay it the compliment of depicting it honestly.
A theme running through many of the pieces in Best Person Rural is the clash between tradition and modernity in the years from 1964 to 2004, when he wrote the essays in the collection. Progress has the upper hand, and it’s all the more reason to give this book to friends who fantasize about rural life. Others may envision Vermont as a kind of Arcadia with Internet connections. Perrin reminds us that the day is coming – if it is not here – when much of Vermont will look “like central New Jersey with hills.”
Best line: “Despite the vast changes of the last twenty years, I think it is still accurate to say that the basic New England characteristic is a kind of humorous stoicism. You expect it to snow just before you have to drive a hundred miles, and to be sleeting when you have a day off to ski.”
Worst line: None.
Recommended if … you admire essayists with an unadorned prose style, such as E.B. White, or are looking for a gift for a reader with a passion for rural life.
Editor: Terry Osborne chose the essays from Perrin’s First Person Rural, Second Person Rural, Third Person Rural, Last Person Rural and added five uncollected pieces.
Published: October 2006
Consider reading also: A Reader’s Delight (Dartmouth, 1988), a collection of 40 brief and elegant essays that Perrin wrote for the Washington Post about some of his favorite books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.
Posted by Janice Harayda
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor and critic for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. Please visit www.janiceharayda.com to learn about her comedies of manners, The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999) and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004).