Vermont author finds new way to reveal how the state can help refugees

Sandgate writer Brad Kessler, right, speaks on a panel alongside Laurie Stavrand, center, of the Vermont office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

The idea for Brad Kessler’s latest book rang loud and clear.

The Vermont author had moved from New York to the small town of Sandgate in Bennington County, which has a population of 387, where he can hear the sound of vespers bells from a nearby monastery every night.

Kessler, after writing two acclaimed novels, watched his wife, photographer Dona Ann McAdams, take portraits of asylum seekers around the world.

“It was those two things I wanted to write about,” he recalls. “The sanctuary and the people who need it to survive.”

Kessler’s resulting work, “North,” is one of four fiction finalists for the annual Vermont Book Prize, to be announced Saturday at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpellier.

The novel tells the story of a Vermont monk, a Somali refugee, and an Afghan war veteran whose lives intersect in the Green Mountains during a spring blizzard.

“When I started this novel in 2012, I imagined it would be set in a near-dystopian future, where Americans would turn their backs on refugees and close the country’s borders,” Kessler writes in the afterword. “What I didn’t know at the time was how quickly that future would come.”

When Donald Trump became president, Kessler met monks at several area monasteries and Vermont veterans of recent wars that killed more of their peers per capita than any other state.

The refugee character, on the other hand, is initially inspired less by an individual than by the author’s imagination.

“That’s fine,” Kessler recalled, an early reader telling him, “but you got it very wrong.”

That reviewer was Laurie Stavrand, community partnerships coordinator for the Vermont office of the American Committee for Refugees and Immigrants in Colchester. She introduced the author to the Somali community in Chittenden County and their struggles to find housing, employment and education.

“They have a lot of goals in their lives,” Stavrand said, “but their main one is safety.”

The search for this is not a new theme for Kessler. His first novel, “Lick Creek”, published in 2001, depicts a Jewish immigrant forced to flee Russia for Appalachia in West Virginia. His second film, “Birds in Fall,” released in 2006, focuses on a group of strangers who gather in Nova Scotia to seek news of loved ones after a plane crash.

“North” chronicles the Vermont monk’s exploration of how best to help refugees, beginning with his online search for information about their country and culture, food and faith.

“The more he read, the more he discovered, not only about Somalia, but his own unhidden story – because it was there for all to see – his complicity and the overlapping of their lives: him inside ‘a cloister on a mountain in New England, she halfway around the world,’ writes Kessler in Chapter 12. ‘Weren’t they part of the same system, no matter how separate each seemed on the surface?

Kessler pays tribute to every refugee, monk and veteran he has met in the decade he has spent writing his last book.

“Without everyone’s wisdom and contribution,” he notes in the afterword, “there would be no story, no book.”

Stavrand says the novel helps readers see their shared humanity with the growing number of refugees in the state.

“Books like this,” she said, “really help us connect with people and get a better sense of what their lives are like.”

Sandgate writer Brad Kessler is the author of “North”, a work of fiction inspired by hard facts. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

“North” is one of nearly a dozen works nominated as finalists for this weekend’s Vermont Book Awards, sponsored by the Vermont State Department of Libraries and Humanities. Other includes:

Saturday’s awards program will also unveil the latest selection from Vermont Reads, a year after the statewide program – which aims, figuratively and literally, to put residents on the same length of d wave while reading the same book – chose her first LGBTQ+ track, “We” by Sarah Henstra. Contain the multitudes.

“Our Vermont Reads 2022 pick will show that we see our role helping to spark conversations,” Vermont Humanities program director Ryan Newswanger said of the upcoming announcement.

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Tags: Brad Kessler, Dona Ann McAdams, Laurie Stavrand, North, refugees, Ryan Newswanger, Sandgate, American Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Vermont Book Award, Vermont Humanities, We Contain Multitudes

Kevin O'Connor

About Kevin

Kevin O’Connor is a Brattleboro-based writer and former member of the Sunday Rutland Herald and Times Argus.

E-mail: [email protected]

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