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The Commons
The Arts

Looking for the bright side of a horrible year

In ‘Embattled Brattleboro,’ author tells a tale of a town’s resilience in the face of multiple traumas

“Embattled Brattleboro” is available at local bookstores, online at Amazon, and through www.surrycottagebooks.com.

Originally published in The Commons issue #182 (Wednesday, December 12, 2012).


BRATTLEBORO—On Sunday, Dec. 16, at 4:30 p.m at Latchis 4, Dave Eisenstadter will present stories and more from his new book, Embattled Brattleboro: How a Vermont Town Endured a Year of Fire, Murder and Hurricane Irene.

Eisenstadter chronicles the series of disasters that struck Brattleboro in the span of a few months in 2011: the Brooks House fire in April, a pair of murders in August, and flash flooding caused by Irene that caused extensive damage to those who lived along Whetstone Brook — including the venue for his talk, the Latchis Theatre.

In addition to reading sections from Embattled Brattleboro, Eisenstadter also will share photos from these events, and moderate a community discussion with residents who dealt with the unusual series of events.

”I want to share experiences and stories with the people of Brattleboro,” Eisenstadter says.

Eisenstadter is quick to say that, rather than this being a downcast look at the town, he hopes to convey his joy about doing this project.

“I am eager to hear stories from the audience I haven’t heard yet, to get new thoughts about what happened, and what it means to the community,” he says.

Eisenstadter is a reporter for the Dedham Transcript in Massachusetts. He has worked for the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript and Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire. His previous book, The Weight of the Ice, chronicled the destruction wrought by the massive ice storm of December 2008, which devastated much of southern New Hampshire.

“My Brattleboro project began with the idea of writing a history of how a town copes with disaster, which was also what The Weight of the Ice was about. But as I continued working on the book, it became a story of how the townspeople did such a good job coping with disaster, and how this special community transformed itself to become a very good place to recover from trying events.”

A personal connection

Born in New York City, Eisenstadter grew up in the Keene area, so he knows Brattleboro quite well.

“The three home bases in my youth were Keene, Peterborough, and Brattleboro,” he says. “I went to Brattleboro all the time. It was the fun place to go. I went to my first dance parties at the Common Ground. I took tango lessons there, and always went to the food co-op when in town. Even though I now live in Massachusetts, I have a strong community connection with the town.”

That was a big reason for undertaking this book, he says.

“I wanted to get to know the community better I frankly was curious to see how Brattleboro was reacting and recovering to what had hit them.”

Communities to the rescue

As with his ice storm book, Eisenstadter said Embattled Brattleboro fed his curiosity of how individuals cope with such hard-hitting events.

But he also discovered that, “[M]ore than I expected, Brattleboro got the concept of ’community’ down. I found out that it is a place where people know how to take care of each other.”

With the national media following the events in Vermont in the wake of Irene, “Brattleboro really put its best foot forward,” he says, “as it showed the entire country what a remarkable place it was.”

“People of Brattleboro went all out to help people, going to West Brattleboro to dig the flood-damaged trailer parks out of the mud, or taking Brooks House tenants who lost their apartments in the fire into their homes until they could find permanent places to live,” he adds.

Eisenstadter began research on his book by contacting people he already knew in Brattleboro. He drove to town every weekend, talking to people on the street to find out their perspective on the events. He went to “store owners, made calls to church leaders, the police, fire department, anybody anyone suggested. I believe I have over one hundred names of references in the book.”

The toughest story

Perhaps of all catastrophes affecting Brattleboro, the most difficult to write about was the fatal shooting of Brattleboro Food Co-op store manager Michael Martin, not the least because it was then an ongoing police investigation with a yet-untried suspect at its center.

“It remains a very sensitive area to talk about in Brattleboro,” says Eisenstadter. “So many people knew the person charged with the murder, Richard Gagnon. He was the familiar guy at the Co-op who would always be there to suggest a bottle of wine. Also, he could often be seen around town, like at the bookstores. He was very well liked. But also the shooting violates so many people’s idea of what the Co-op represents in the community. While there may have been internal strife there, as at any workplace, most see it as as a special place. Consequently, a lot of people are still hesitant to discuss the matter; but on the other hand, others found it therapeutic to talk about.”

With such a volatile event, it proved to be difficult to sort out opinion from fact, Eisenstadter says.

“I worked diligently to present credible stuff with documentation and, if something was opinionated, to emphasize it as such,” he added.

After the fire, flood, and two sensational murders, what most people to whom he spoke ultimately were concerned about involved the safety of the community.

However, Eisenstadter said he thinks it important to add that, while they were upset by events, they saw that this strange year created a potential to work through the town’s problems and make Brattleboro an even better place to live.

“The town may still have a long way to go for recovery,” he says, “but after talking to people in the book, I know that real progress has been made. With the passage of time, the town has been able to heal. I am nothing but impressed with Brattleboro facing its issues.”


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