When I tell people I grew up in Vermont, they often smile dreamily, as if I had claimed Neverland as my home state. In a sense, they are right. My childhood in the small town of Stowe was idyllic in many ways, the summers in particular. My siblings and I spent the long, green hours ranging through the fields, doing cannonballs in the swimming hole and fishing for trout. We sold blackberries by the side of the road and, as the sun finally sank behind the hills, we chased each other in endless, breathless games of tag, racing across grass glittering with fireflies.
But Vermont, in all its serene beauty, has another side. As a young girl, I noticed that Vermonters with French Canadian names (DeCelle, Laferriere, LeMieux, Bouchard) were all Catholic and generally less well-off than the Protestants in our town. My parents were German immigrants and, although Catholic, fell somewhere in between these groups in the tacit social rankings. The Protestants dominated the golf club; the poorest of the French Canadian families lived in trailers and shacks along the old mill stream.
It wasn’t until I decided to write a book set in Vermont that I learned these class distinctions had a lengthy, and dark, history. In the late 1800s, Vermont’s logging industry faltered and Vermonters of French Canadian heritage fell on hard times. Wealthy folks from New York City and elsewhere began building second homes to enjoy Vermont’s beauty, and the government, dominated by Protestant elites, welcomed them—and further marginalized the less fortunate in the process. In the early 1900s, Henry Perkins, a professor at the University of Vermont, spearheaded a eugenics movement targeting French Canadians and Abenaki Indians. Eugenics programs were common in the U.S. at the time, but Vermont’s was unusually fierce. Thousands of “feeble-minded,” “wanton,” and “degenerate” citizens were institutionalized. Many were sterilized.
Vermont’s class conflicts are a central theme in my latest novel, All the Best People. The story begins in 1972 but winds back to the Great Depression when the eugenics movement was at its peak. Solange, a girl of French-Canadian heritage, falls in love with young man from a monied family. What transpires wreaks havoc not only on their families but also on the next generation who must cope with the aftermath of tragedies long since buried. Carole, Solange’s daughter, is at the center of this unfortunate legacy. She is hearing things and fears she is going insane. To understand what is happening to her own mind, she must unravel the tangled truth of her family history, for her young daughter’s sake as well as her own.
As I wrote this story, I dipped into the reservoir of my early memories—a pleasurable revisiting of the freedom and delight of being a child in Vermont. Learning about the state’s shameful history didn’t alter those memories, but it did put them in perspective. That’s what it means for me to grow up, I suppose, to view my experience in context, to take a step back and see my life through a wide-angle lens. Maybe from that perspective Vermont appears a little less perfect and a little more real. Maybe growing up means appreciating and loving what is actually there, rather than the Neverland to which I could, in any case, never return.
Sonja Yoerg grew up in Stowe, Vermont, where she financed her college education by waitressing at the Trapp Family Lodge. She earned her Ph.D. in Biological Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, and studied learning in blue jays, kangaroo rats and spotted hyenas, among other species. Her non-fiction book about animal intelligence, Clever as a Fox was published in 2001.
While her two daughters were young, Sonja taught in their schools in California. Now that they are in college, she writes full-time. She currently lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with her husband.