by Cheryl Luther Michaels
GREENSBORO – You probably know Stephen Russell Payne as the author of “Riding My Guitar, The Rick Norcross Story.” Payne’s newly released novel, “You Were Always There” also has a local connection. It is set on Caspian Lake in Greensboro. Dr. Payne will be at the Greensboro Library for a benefit signing event on October 6, at 6:30 p.m.
When I agreed to write a review of Payne’s new release, I was so honored by the request that I may have accepted a bit too readily, without actually considering my qualifications for the task. I think the last time I wrote a book review was in Mrs. Shattuck’s English Class at Hardwick Academy, over 50 years ago. I do love to read, and if I really enjoy a book I try to leave a review on Amazon. But while others leave eloquent and insightful messages, my review usually reads “Really liked this book, couldn’t put it down.”
In the first chapter of “You Were Always There” we meet 19 year old Luke Simms, a local farm boy and delivery truck driver whose widowed mother struggles to maintain the family farm. The book begins during the Vietnam War and Luke, with his draft card in his pocket, is expecting notification of his reporting date. He meets Sarah Clements, the daughter of a federal judge who is building a fancy summer cabin on Caspian Lake in order to escape the political atmosphere and war protests in Washington.
Through these two and their story, Payne paints a picture of the social differences that exist between rural families and those whose lives happen mainly in urban “away places,” but who enjoy second homes in Vermont.
Although Sarah and Luke’s definitions of what constitutes a successful life are vastly different, Payne surprises us both in the beginning and the end with a love story that is both beautiful and sensitive. This tale of people with differing life experiences and resources, who occupy the same small neighborhoods, could have been set in many small New England towns. However, it is especially aptly told in Payne’s fictionalized version of Greensboro.
The story rings true on many levels: time, place and the humanity shared by good people despite their differences. Perhaps that is because it was written by a NEK native who is a fourth generation Vermonter. In addition to previously publishing the Norcross biography, two novels and a book of short stories, Payne is a general surgeon, and holds a masters in English from Tufts University.
His other two novels, “Cliff Walking” and its sequel “Life on a Cliff,” are dramatic novels which explore the emotional scars left by spousal and child abuse and addiction. Both books are set in a charming seaside village in Maine.
“Ties That Bind Us,” Payne’s collection of short stories, is peppered with Northeast Kingdom locations you will recognize such as Morrisville, Joe’s Pond and the Hardwick Poor Farm. The characters remind us of that elderly Vermont neighbor or perhaps our grandparents. Late author Howard Frank Mosher commented “‘Ties That Bind’ takes us to a Vermont most visitors to the Green Mountain State don’t know exists. His wonderfully independent-minded characters are the very last of a breed, whose like will not be seen again. These stories, written with clear-eyed affection, gentle humor, and great expertise, remind me of “Country of the Pointed Firs.”
So, what did this reader think of “You Were Always There?” Really liked this book, couldn’t put it down.
by Cheryl Luther Michaels