The Stories Of Another Time
Author Alec Hastings at home in Randolph Center. Hastings, an English teacher at Whitcomb High School in Bethel, has written a young adult novel, Otter St. Onge and the Bootleggers. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »
Alec Hastings grew up listening to the stories spun by his father and grandfather about the wild days of Prohibition when Vermont, like other states bordering Canada, was one of the highways for bootleggers smuggling liquor through to a parched and grateful nation.
There was the tale about the bootleggers and the cow, when smugglers attempting to escape revenuers on Route 5 near McIndoe Falls hit and killed a cow belonging to Hastings’ great-great grandfather. And there was the time his grandfather Scott Hastings, then a young man working at a paper mill in Barnet, walked over to look at a parked truck. Out of curiosity he lifted the canvas and was startled to see a man toting a shotgun guarding a shipment of alcohol. The man waved off Hastings, telling him to pretend he’d never seen anything.
So when Alec Hastings, an English teacher at Whitcomb High School in Bethel, began to write his novel Otter St. Onge and the Bootleggers (The Public Press), he thought back to the rich vein of lore passed on to him by not only his family but by the Vermonters he knew growing up.
“There’s a stereotype of Yankees as laconic and stoic, but that’s a stereotype. They were storytellers,” Hastings said in an interview at his home in Randolph Center. He sat on a deck that looked east over a valley, with waves of hills on the horizon.
Hastings grew up in Woodstock, in a part of town called Happy Valley, where he routinely met talkative, eccentric men and women who, consciously and unconsciously, worked their way into the novel, farmers with names like Elmer Bumps. “We pounded fence posts in the spring and went out walking and haying. That was a very different time,” he said.
As a boy, Hastings read grand adventure stories by Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain about young men thrust into circumstances not of their making, and how they grew to manhood. “I wanted to write that kind of book,” he said.
While there are many books by contemporary writers of young adult novels that have female protagonists, he’s seen fewer with boys at the heart of the story. And, he said, many of the boys he teaches had told him that they hadn’t read a book since they were young, and he wanted to write a story for them. The young men he teaches, he said, are “trying to figure out how to be a man,” one of the themes running through the novel.
So Otter St. Onge was born, a young man of 18 who isn’t quite naive but isn’t sophisticated in the ways of the world either. “Otter developed first and the story came afterward,” Hastings said. Why Otter? Otters are smart and playful and, of course, live near water; and Hastings knew he wanted to set the book on and around Lake Champlain, a body of water he’s kayaked all the way from South Bay to its northernmost point at Mississquoi. St. Onge comes from the name of a landfill in northwestern Vermont, which Hastings knew about from his work for the Vermont Agency of Transportation in the early 1980s.
Now in his early 60s, Hastings always wanted to write a novel, but life intervened, with marriage and children and jobs as a carpenter, mechanic and surveyor. He then went back to get a master’s degree in creative writing from Vermont College, and went into teaching. “Going into teaching was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life,” he said.
He began writing the book six years ago, chipping away at it an hour here and an hour there. As the novel grew, he also read it to the tenth graders he teaches, and watched how, even in an era of dazzling, seductive electronic iPods and iPads, kids still respond to being read to. “Within a short time. they’d be looking at me and listening,” Hastings said.
The language of the book is straightforward and colloquial, in keeping with the era Hastings is depicting, and his intended audience. “None of the language in the book is difficult and I did that on purpose, so it wouldn’t be an obstacle,” he said, but he did try to “keep the flavor” of rural dialects and humorous, mild expletives. He acknowledges that some, but not all, of the books written today for kids have lost the richness and depth of language found in such classics as Treasure Island, Kidnapped or H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines.
“The language was considerably more sophisticated and challenging than what we have now. I’m a little sad about that, but you deal with what you’ve got,” Hastings said.
What Hastings wants to convey in Otter St. Onge and the Bootleggers are the principles by which people like his great-grandparents and grandparents lived. Generosity, kindness, hard work, an attitude of live and let live: “Those values mean a lot to me. ... These are the people you really want to represent you.”
With urban culture now dominant in the music, books and TV shows that children watch, Hastings worries that something is being lost, and wonders how the culture is influencing the young men he’s taught and befriended. A summer job now might be a stint at McDonald’s instead of working on a family farm. “It’s nothing against McDonald’s, but I don’t think it makes you feel like a man to hand out McWraps,” he said.
He’s now thinking about a possible sequel, one featuring Otter’s grandfather that will be set during the last great log drive down the Connecticut River in 1915. He looks to such influences as Stephen King, whose literary stock has risen over the years, once damned with faint praise as a “popular” writer, as if being read by millions of readers were a shortcoming rather than a virtue: “He’s prolific and (his books) are not lightweight, and he is a masterful storyteller. He sells a lot of books so say what you will, somebody likes what he does.”
Hastings sees a faint parallel: “I don’t think Otter St. Onge is literature, but I do think it’s a good story,” he said.
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.