Published February 5, 2006
Honoring the Darrells of our towns
Every Vermont town has at least one, although their names vary: Bill or Luke or Bobby. Ours was Clarence. In every town lives a man who is indispensable to the community. Often elderly, unassuming, and supremely generous, these men do the work many of us either can't or can't get to. They plow snow, cut and deliver firewood, clear roofs, lay stone, empty stuffed garages, truck things, dig holes, fix porches and trap bothersome skunks. They attend to these chores with uncommon friendliness and a prodigious work ethic, often despite well-scuffed boots, equipment sometimes held together with baling wire and solder, and trucks with antennae jerry-rigged from coat hangers. Above all, they are patient and kind, both to the children who attend their comings and goings with frank curiosity and to the adults who hire them for their hard-earned knowledge and experience.
In Plainfield that man was Darrell Farnham, who has just received a tribute from Leda Schubert and Mary Azarian in their charming new picture book, "Here Comes Darrell." Such an homage is long overdue for these usually unheralded members of our community. Darrell, who died in 2002, lived the kind of unpretentious life that drew scant notice, and yet in very tangible ways, he touched the lives of an untold number of his neighbors, including Schubert's.
The prose in "Here Comes Darrell" is spare and plain, as it needs to be in a picture book, and the story is refreshingly unsentimental about the year-round challenges of living in Vermont. Certainly, no one is going to move to the state based on Darrell's experiences. His nose hairs freeze while he's plowing out driveways before sunrise on frigid winter mornings; his truck slides off a muddy driveway as thick and slick as "chocolate pudding" while he's on a humanitarian mission in mud season to deliver wood to a cold family; and he braves the miserable black flies of early summer to excavate a new pond so a small boy can hunt frogs. In autumn, however, when the wind is gusting and ripping brightly colored leaves from the trees, the story takes a delightful twist, and children will see for themselves how generosity is repaid among people who care for each other.
Mary Azarian's woodcuts complement the story. Winner in 1999 of a Caldecott Medal for "Snowflake Bentley," the story of Wilson Bentley, of Jericho, who at the turn of the 20th century devoted his life to photographing snowflakes, Azarian is also one of the state's best-known artists. From simple blocks of wood, she has carved out a style that is both crusty and winsome, but one that most of all depicts the essence of life in Vermont in captivating detail. In "Here Comes Darrell," for example, she has included such tangible nuances as the tread on big truck tires, the infinite variety of foliage, and ripples on water, but she succeeds, too, in capturing the essence of important intangibles: strong winds and the breathtaking beauty of a Vermont summer day.
Until three years ago, Schubert worked for the state Department of Education as a school librarian consultant. However, publishing "Winnie All Day Long" and "Winnie Plays Ball" in 2000, both easy readers about her enormous mutt – half Newfoundland and half St. Bernard – whetted her appetite to write more. She left her job, enrolled in Vermont College's MFA program and earned a degree in writing for children and young adults.
"I had always wanted to write, and I decided I was running out of time," she said from her house in Plainfield. The inspiration for "Here Comes Darrell" came to her when Farnham, who dug her frog pond, excavated the foundation for her house, plowed her driveway and delivered her firewood, lay dying of cancer. Schubert and her husband visited him, and that's when Farnham's wife pointed out something that Schubert had never known: Farnham had always plowed Schubert's driveway first because he knew she had to be at work in Montpelier early. "I had this sense that someone I didn't even know had really cared about me," she said. This book became her way of saying thank you.
The generation of Vermonters who grew up during the Depression and World War II is passing away, taking with it many of the Darrells who attend to the odd jobs in the state's small communities. It is a passing worth noting. Schubert and Azarian remind us, however, that the work they perform is so vital that a new generation of Darrells is almost a certainty. Moreover, the story's heartwarming final twist affirms for children the value of friendship and reaffirms for many adults why we have chosen to live here.
"Here Comes Darrell," text by Leda Schubert and illustrations by Mary Azarian, Picturebook, $16
Nancy Price Graff is a Montpelier freelance writer.