Vermont – November 2-4, 1927 to August 2-4, 2017. Ninety years and 13 weeks ago to the day, Vermont experienced the catastrophic Flood of 1927, a disaster that has become almost normal under similar conditions and with similar results, the most recent being Tropical Storm Irene. Then as now, engorged mountain streams shot out of the hills like firehoses, and the rivers rose, inexorably. Then, the Black River raged through Proctorsville, to a depth of six feet. Cavendish was awash; a 600-foot-wide gorge swallowed a stretch of Main Street plus seven houses and ten barns.
Jay Craven’s “Where the Rivers Flow North,” which Craven is taking on tour through Vermont this summer, tells a tale of that moment, combining the 1927 flood and the construction of the Comerford Dam on the Connecticut River near Barnet, Vermont, into a perfect storm of events in the fictional Kingdom County.
Craven drew much of his material from the works of Vermont author Howard Frank Mosher, who died on January 29, 2017. He and Mosher shared what Craven calls “an historical and cultural imagination of Vermont” that finds expression in “Rivers,” “Disappearances” and “A Stranger in the Kingdom.”
Many strands of real life go into the making of a piece of “fiction.” The power of “Where the Rivers Flow North,” Craven’s first feature film, lies in its detailed identification with place, people and a threatened way of life – details that speak eloquently to long-time Vermonters.
Retired logger Noel Lord (Rip Torn) belongs to the woods and lakes and holds out against Progress; his Cree housekeeper (Tantoo Cardinal) tries to talk sense into him when a Boston developer tries to bully him into giving up his lifetime lease that lies in the path of the new dam. Amid ironically peaceful scenes of the North Woods, Noel tries desperately to harness nature to his plans, which end in tragedy.
At the screening in Woodstock last Sunday, Craven revealed that Mosher modeled Noel Lord after a real man he knew in the Northeast Kingdom, and there was “a lot to read in that character.” Mosher also knew of the incident in 1964 when Interstate 91 was rammed through the Romaine Tenney farm in Ascutney – unnecessarily, many feel – and Romaine’s farmhouse burned down, with him inside it.
Jay Craven has been in Vermont for 43 years and feels “committed to this idea of community and culture.” He appreciates the “frontier sensibility” which includes even the flawed character of Noel Lord – “a quintessentially American character, beyond being a quintessentially Vermont character of that earlier time,” Craven told Vermont Journal.
The fields and the woods “spawned generations of backbreaking work – Noel could not let go of that. … He was one with that land but it wasn’t really his because he didn’t have any status.”
These days, we seem to be coming around full circle in a number of ways.
The Howard Frank Mosher Tribute Tour commemorates Mosher and his stories. In addition, Craven is raising funds to preserve his films and produce study materials for schools and communities, as a way to honor and explain the Vermont that may be fast disappearing, replaced by, in his words, “a culture that very easily makes obsolete and extinct ways of life that are meaningful.”
Showings with informal talks by Craven are scheduled for Aug. 5 in Norwich, Aug. 6 in Weston, Aug. 12 in Manchester, and locations in northern Vermont. DVDs of selected titles, including “Rivers,” are available and affordable; admission is by donation. For times and venues, go to kingdomcounty.org.