by Jay Craven
Vermont novelist Howard Frank Mosher died on January 29 this year. As a filmmaker, I worked closely with the Northeast Kingdom writer since 1985, making five films based on his stories. I will be on tour this summer, presenting reflections on my 28-year collaboration with Mosher and a screening my first Mosher feature film,“Where the Rivers Flow North.” Dates include 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, August 22, at the Savoy Theater.
In his sonnet, “How My Light Is Spent,” 17th century writer John Milton meditated on the growing fact of his blindness. As his curtain of darkness fell, Milton openly considered how his talents might be diminished during the last half of his life. Milton reveals his logical frustration in the poem, along with his resolve for perseverance and patience, even as he questions his life’s purpose. And he expresses an affecting humility before God as he faces his own limitations and reconsiders his aspirations.
Milton was one of a handful of writers, also including Faulkner, Dickens and Shakespeare, who especially inspired Mosher. Mosher admired Milton’s surly social critiques and he considered “Paradise Lost” a touchstone. Indeed, in his rowdy and ambitious epic tale, “Disappearances,” Mosher tackled “the fall from Eden” as a central theme.
I’m sure that Mosher thought of Milton during his final days. Because, once blind and impoverished, Milton persisted, writing many poems, including “Paradise Lost,” after he’d lost his sight. When Mosher realized last December that he might have only a few weeks to live, he worked around the clock to finish his final novel, “God’s Kingdom,” that will be released this fall. He rushed it to his editor who replied promptly, “I wouldn’t change a word.”
Like John Milton, Mosher refused to forsake his writing in the face of daunting news about his health. When I saw him just a couple of days before he died, I congratulated Howard on the completion of his final work. He smiled, despite his obvious discomfort. “Just under the wire,” he gently joked, giving a thumbs-up.
Like his character, Quebec Bill, in “Disappearances,” Mosher was an indefatigable optimist and adventurer. He wrote every day, in longhand on yellow legal pads, and lived his life, non-stop, with visions of character and story percolating in his imagination. I was lucky to have had the experience of these same Mosher characters and stories animating my life and thoughts as I developed and produced five films based on Howard’s stories.
This month, I’ll take to the road to reflect about my long collaboration with Mosher and share some of the many stories that, to me, demonstrated his remarkable talent, grace, insight, generosity, wit and irrepressible spirit. I’ll recall times like the day we planned to shoot the pivotal bathtub scene in “Where the Rivers Flow North,” when lead actor Rip Torn, after our hours of waiting and cajoling, refused to come out of his trailer. Undone by Torn’s intransigence, I knew I had only one place to turn. And when I called Mosher and detailed my predicament, he got into his car and headed straight to our film set, an hour south of his home. You might be surprised to hear the outcome.
We’ll also present a 25th anniversary screening of “Where the Rivers Flow North” at these Mosher tribute events. “Rivers” was our first feature film — and it remains the most remarkable adventure of my life. The picture tells the story of an aging logger, Noel Lord, and his native American mate, Bangor, who face the extinction of their way of life when a local power company announces plans to build a dam that will flood them off their land.
“Where the Rivers Flow North” has made many friends on the road and it was a finalist for Critics Week at the 1993 Cannes International Film Festival. The late great actor Gregory Peck was asked at a Houston, Texas public event to name his favorite films of all time. He singled out “Where the Rivers Flow North” for its haunting evocation of a distinctive Vermont time and place — and its “remarkable” performances by Academy Award nominee Rip Torn and Native American actress, Tantoo Cardinal.
Like most of Mosher’s stories, “Where the Rivers Flow North” conjures larger-than-life characters and articulates a vivid sense of Vermont rooted in Mosher’s historical imagination of place — our place. I hope you’ll join us to remember all that Mosher gave to us — that will endure.