Where does NYRB find these wonderful memoirs? Thank goodness they do and that they are reissuing these modern classics. The Farm in the Green Mountains by Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer is yet another delightful book that was originally published in 1949 as a series of essays/columns in a newspaper and then collected in the form it's in now and translated from German into English in the mid-1980s. Alice and Carl Zuckmayer, along with their two daughters fled Hitler at the start of WWII. Carl was a playwright whose most recent play satirized the militarization of Germany garnering the wrong sort of attention from the government. They went first to Austria, then Switzerland eventually landing in the US and ultimately an eighteenth-century farmhouse in the Vermont countryside. Lucky for us, since Alice's memoir of their experiences in America during and after WWII makes for a most entertaining read.
The book is made up of a collection of reworked letters that Alice wrote to her in-laws and then fleshed out and added to later. The introduction calls the nineteen chapters "vignettes", which is an apt description. It has an interesting history as a few of those letters were initially published in a Munich newspaper after the war by author Erich Kästner (known here for his book-turned-movie, The Parent Trap). Happily they must have had enough success to call for more material.
"The intricacies of their days, the ins and outs of life on the farm as it is learned and lived by these unlikely inhabitants, this is superficially what The Farm in the Green Mountains is about. On a deeper level, it's a story of perseverance, protection, everyday heroism, and joy."
So, Carl is a writer and Alice a former actor turned medical student, though the research she seems to be involved in during her years in Vermont appears to have more of a historical slant. The book covers the war years and some years after, but it was written in hindsight--some chapters much much later as the book itself was edited and the chapters collected decades after their years in America when they were again living in Europe. Interestingly Alice notes that she wrote it in German and had to look up some farming terms as it referred to a world she knew only in English. Many immigrants, or in this case exiles from the war, came to the US only temporarily. They worked to earn money to return to and live in Europe. For the Zuckmayers, however, they were somewhat adrift. Their former home was no longer theirs, at least in spirit, once they returned to Europe. They ended up living in a new home with no history attached. So they would work and earn abroad so they could return to Vermont to live. In a sense that farmhouse was what they thought of as "home".
It's always interesting to see your own country through the eyes of those who come from or have lived most of their lives someplace else. The Zuckmayers had a very good experience living and traveling in the US and in particular Vermont, and Alice writes about it with much affection and humor. She particularly liked our libraries (I do, too) and there are several chapters of what the academic library she used (Dartmouth's) was like and what a pleasant experience it was and how it compared to those she knew from home. Of course we have known that all along, but it is nice to get that affirmation from a visitor so to speak.
The Zuckmayers and their daughters were really more than visitors, however. Although Alice certainly, and maybe Carl as well, must have had some experience of farm living or care of animals to a certain extent in Europe (the editor calls them "urbane sophisticates") the vignettes chronicle their education as farmers. Their farmhouse was fairly rustic (but with their landlord they improved it), Vermont is filled with as many eccentric individuals as we might imagine, and the USDA (as it was then at least) was hugely helpful in getting their farm up and running. They raised birds--chickens, geese, ducks among a few other animals. Once an animal had a name it was no longer up for slaughter, and weird as this may sound, the chapter on "rats" turned out to be one of my favorites in the whole book. I saw it and thought, 'oh, dear', but more than once Alice had me utterly riveted to her storytelling!
"We had begun the farm experiment with the illusion that it would be a foundation for self-sufficiency and would give Zuck [Carl] the possibility of doing his work."
"He had had the choice of rowing as a slave in the Hollywood galleys with the convict's wages for forced labor or, on the other hand, doing his own work as his own mater. But in America everything is always different and unforeseeable."
The book follows their adventures but there is a mishmash of topics really. She writes generally about America, the holidays and their search for a place to live, and then there is much about turning their farm into a working farm. It's fascinating stuff and memorably told. There is lots about the animals and the people of Vermont (sort of kind of in that order even), but also about how they lived and where they went and then later what life was like going back to Europe.
As I was reading I marked so many passages and dog eared so many pages thinking I would share this and this and this, but now there is too much to choose from and maybe it's better to just virtually present the book to you with a nod and a smile, and a 'you really have to read this . . .'