Exit 8 by John Bragg
Updated: Sep 16
The year is 1964 and Roland Tuttle is the last of his family to work the farm in Wethersfield, Vermont. Wethersfield is by the Connecticut River, on the border between Vermont and New Hampshire. It is a small town in New England. The population in 2000 was about 2,700. You can find all this out on Wikipedia, where you can also find the story that this book is based on, the story of Romaine Tenney who becomes Roland Tuttle in Exit 8.
But don’t do that before you read John Bragg’s book, because his story-telling takes you inside the mind of an extraordinary person.
Roland Tuttle, born in 1900, is aware, in 1964, that Interstate 91 is being built along the Connecticut Valley. Or is he? For a year the reader lives with Roland as he tends his farm, using the tools left by his family; still ploughing with horses, still cutting hay with a scythe. Roland’s tools are falling apart and the stores that supply parts are closing down.
“Everything around him is old: the wagon purchased from Paine Wagon Makers by his grandfather, the single plow that belonged to his great-grandfather, the shovels, the rakes, the barn itself. He spends a good part of his days keeping these tools and implements working.”
Meanwhile the town is buzzing with the coming of the interstate and the route it will take. Roland, “stops at the door to the meeting hall–the voices are louder now–then turns around, goes out the front door, and walks back up the hill to the farm. Never did have much use for meetings.” Is he in denial? Is he not very smart? Is he just plain stubborn? That will be for you, the reader, to decide, because it won’t be spelled out for you by this author. Everything here is seen through Roland’s eyes and Roland lives a life bounded by the farm.
Throughout the year, Roland’s contemplation of the advancing road, which he largely doesn’t contemplate, is overwhelmed by his thinking about the past. The history of the Tuttle family from the first immigrant settlers in the valley onwards is told through his memories. Gradually you get to know why this single man lives in the back kitchen of a large house and you find out what happened to his family.
Roland is taciturn. He spends more time talking to his dog more than to people. But when he speaks he is in control and he has wit.
“–Couple-a good nags, you got there, Eddie says. They got names?
–‘Course they do. That there’s Sam, the other’s Joe.
–Isn’t the dog, Sam? Eddie says.
–Yep. Not likely to get ‘em confused.”
And this way he keeps people at a distance; people who try to help him, try to get him to make a decision, his remaining family, his neighbors, the town sheriff and the man doing local liaison for the government road building project.
Running a small hill farm is sheer hard slog. The summers are short and demanding. The winters are long and life-threatening. And, despite Roland’s life-time of hard work, the farm is falling down around him. When the woodshed roof falls in under the weight of the snow in the middle of the night, “The whole house shakes and Roland lies there, knowing what it is but not wanting to know. When he comes down the steep stairs from the loft in the morning, the door from the woodshed to the kitchen is wide open and snow has drifted across the kitchen floor… He pulls his boots on over his wet socks and opens the front door.”
But this land has infiltrated Roland’s soul and he can’t be separated from it. He was the one to hear his father’s dying words “ Take care of your mother…the farm.” The farm owns him.
How can this ever come to an end?
It’s a year in the telling.
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