Howard Frank Mosher’s THE GREAT NORTHERN EXPRESS is a memoir of Mosher’s cross-country trip promoting his writing. But putting it in such a basic way misses the point entirely, as Mosher’s writing — and his descriptions of what happens while he takes this cross-country trip in a wholly unreliable car — is well worth reading.
Mosher decided to go on his trip at the age of sixty-five after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Getting such a diagnosis was a wake-up call, and it made him wonder why he’d never taken that trip he’d promised himself. Mosher had always believed that the MacArthur Fellowship (one of the most prestigious writing awards out there) could eventually fall to him, and of course he hoped it would. As that Fellowship gives a substantial grant to worthy writers (to the tune of a half a million dollars), you can see how it could fund many cross-country trips.
But with Mosher’s cancer diagnosis looming in the background, he suddenly realized, “What’s stopping me from taking a trip on my own?” Which is why once all of his radiation treatments had been completed, Mosher decided to hit the road despite not having all that much money (something most writers will sympathize with). Mosher’s official excuse — er, reason — for going on this trip is because he must promote his writing, which is also why he planned on visiting as many independent bookstores as he could find. (Of course, as he wryly admitted in the narrative, his loving wife, Phillis, knew better than this, but she wasn’t ever going to tell anyone.)
Mosher then set out in his twenty-year-old Chevrolet Celebrity with 280,000 miles on it, and proceeded to discuss everything that happened to him along the way. But in case that wasn’t enough, Mosher also included many stories from his life. Some of these stories dealt with how he ended up in Vermont of all places, what he thought of his first career as a high school English teacher and the colorful people he met in Vermont. Perhaps Mosher’s best story was when he described the “Eureka!” moment he had when he realized he’d finally found his writer’s “voice,” as his crystallized encapsulation of how he felt when that occurred was spot-on and extremely memorable.
This “trip and real life story” narrative is inextricably woven into Mosher’s overarching story, which (of course) is that life should be celebrated, even when it’s tough. And that all people have a story, whether they realize it or not; it’s the writer’s job to describe that story, which Mosher does brilliantly during good times and bad, and whether he’s talking about himself or someone else.
Bottom line: this is the best memoir by a writer I have ever read, hands-down. But even if you’re not a writer, you owe it to yourself to read Mosher’s funny, witty, and often touching memoir because it’s just that good. (Expect THE GREAT NORTHERN EXPRESS to be on my top ten books of 2012 list, folks.)
— reviewed by Barb