THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
Where the Geese and the Cantaloupe Play
Laura Shaine Cunningham's lifelong romance with the country.
By LAURA SHAPIRO
“This book is dedicated to all the city people who crave the country, who love nature with a passion that is near demented in its innocence,'' Laura Shaine Cunningham writes on the very first page of her new memoir, ''A Place in the Country.'' Fine, but what about the rest of us? As an equally passionate member of the opposite camp -- city dwellers whose craving for the green and the wild is completely satisfied by a trip to the Union Square farmer's market -- I want to urge all who are like-minded to keep reading this book anyway. True, there's an awful lot of rural rapture here (hiking to hidden lakes, discovering turtle eggs -- you know the drill) but this account stands out for two reasons. First, Cunningham makes it delightfully clear that the horrors of the simple life, from snakes to nasty neighbors, are right up front with the bliss. And second, she's a sharp and witty writer. If this particular memoirist were offering up 287 pages on life in an auto parts dealership, you'd be well advised to accept.
For the last 18 years, Cunningham -- Manhattan-born, Bronx-raised -- has
been spending most of her time 100 miles upstate in a gracious old house on 13
acres, with willows and herons and a swimming pond. These unlikely surroundings
still amaze her, growing up as she did in tiny apartments where nature meant a
sooty picnic within view of skyscrapers. But as she looks back at a childhood
physically rooted in
In one of her family's repeated lunges toward the bucolic, Cunningham
accompanies her Uncle Gabe, a song-writing romantic in droopy trousers, as he
hunts for true love at an Orthodox Jewish resort in the Catskills. While he
woos Esther (''a formidable redhead with steel teeth, who seemed to have
marched over to
"'A private house.' Even today, those words hold a potent magic for me. Then, they were more than enough to propel us every weekend on buses and trains to differing destinations we called the 'country.' On the buses, I commandeered the window seat, the better to scan the roadside, my eyes searching for the corridors of evergreen, the hidden paths that led to some ultimate, secret oasis. It seemed to me that the scenery flashed by too fast. Was that a house, set back in the woods? A haunted house, abandoned. Perhaps available? I hunted for the shadows, too, for pure adventure -- was that rock overhang hiding a cave?"
-- from the first
chapter of '
Despite numerous efforts to recast herself as a damsel of the woods,
Cunningham keeps getting catapulted back to the city. She seeks out a rural
college and ends up on a cheerless brick campus near
Not until she marries a man who is just as determined as she is to move out
of the city does Cunningham manage to start living the dream, or at least
renting it. Their first dwelling in the wild is the wing of a former mansion in
After a search that slogs on for 10 years, they find themselves standing in front of a colonial house near a sweep of sugar maples, overlooking a scenic herd of black-and-white cows. Local records for the house go back to 1810; nearly a century later a rich businessman bought it along with acres of adjoining property and had the whole area turned into an English-style estate. The current owners are selling it off, bit by bit. Cunningham takes one look at the house and recognizes paradise. Now she's home. Now she can live the rural life in earnest.
This means livestock, first of all. Cunningham writes that she keeps chickens, geese and goats -- 45 fat animals who do little but exist in a digestive trance,'' she admits. ''None of my farm animals does an honest day's work; they don't provide me with what their species are supposed to produce -- eggs, milk, cheese. Instead, it is I who provide for them, catering every snack.'' Naturally, she can't wait to start a garden, and every spring finds her laboring to create what she freely acknowledges is a salad bar for groundhogs and deer. By now the local wildlife, who disdain her zucchini, have developed a sophisticated taste for mesclun and frisée.
Of course, there are bushels of fruit available in season from neighbors and markets, so Cunningham starts putting up those iconic jars of preserves that glow all winter in the cellars of the truly rural. ''As I hover over my boiling caldrons like one of Macbeth's weird sisters, I brood on the possibility of botulism, the 'big B,' ''she writes. ''Even 'The Joy of Cooking,' a tome that waxes poetic over preserves, sounds a tad grim when it notes Clostridium botulinum is a germ so deadly that one ounce can kill a million people.''
While she manages not to commit murder by jelly, a lot else happens in 18
years of paradise. Cunningham and her husband bring home a baby girl from
This book has a great deal of literary company nowadays, including a spate
of memoirs by writers who move to
Laura Shapiro is at work on a book about women and cooking in the 1950's.