BRATTLEBORO—Candidates’ forums generally follow a predictable format. A moderator asks questions, sometimes audience members ask questions. Each person speaks about their experience, their positions, and what differentiates them from whomever else is running for office.
On the evening of July 25, Brooks Memorial Library hosted a different kind of candidates’ forum.
The purpose wasn’t to have the participants give a stump speech or, if an incumbent, review their past political achievements — although one candidate strayed a bit from that script.
Instead, it was a chance for the public to learn which books are important to the people seeking to represent Brattleboro in the Legislature. Each participant was asked to talk about their childhood favorites, contemporary titles, and how these books helped them develop their world view.
As the room filled up with about 60 people, Library Director Starr LaTronica opened the event and introduced the panelists.
This is the first time the library has hosted this kind of event, she said, and then admitted, “I’m sorry to say, it was not my idea.”
Former Assistant Youth Services Librarian Paige Martin suggested the forum before she moved back to Pennsylvania. “This was her going-away present to us,” LaTronica said.
LaTronica said the candidates randomly drew numbers earlier to decide in which order they would speak. Each participant had 15 minutes.
First up was incumbent Rep. Valerie A. Stuart, D-West Brattleboro. Stuart noted books provided a refuge during her childhood, which was beset by challenges such as her parents’ divorce, frequent moves due to her father’s military career, and “my mother’s abusive nature,” she said.
“Books, to this day, inspire me as a legislator,” Stuart noted, and talked about some of the work she has done as an elected official.
‘The leaders are the problem’
One of the books Stuart cited as a favorite is The Russians, by Hedrick Smith. “It’s a history book that’s relevant now,” she said, and noted “the similarities between the American people and the Russian people. It’s the leaders that are the problem.”
Another favorite, Peter Wohlleben’s The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion — Surprising Observations of a Hidden World, Stuart included because, she said, the love of animals can bring people together.
“Here in Brattleboro, we all love animals, most of us, although maybe not barking dogs,” she said.
Up next was incumbent Rep. Mollie S. Burke, P/D-Brattleboro. Although a few of the works she cited were written by men, a common theme in Burke’s list was books written by, and about, women and girls.
Burke called Virgina Woolf’s To the Lighthouse one of her “all-time favorites.” Woolf “really broke new ground in her writing style, which was stream-of-consciousness,” a style that had usually been confined to male writers, she said.
Her favorite childhood book was The Snow Queen, by Hans Christian Andersen. Burke noted that, unlike most fairy tales, which are about “the boy questing” for something, this book “is really a girl-quest.”
The main character, Gerda, goes out to find her lost friend, a boy named Kai, who was captured by the Snow Queen. “All these women help her along the way,” Burke said.
Next, Emilie Kornheiser, a newcomer on the primary ballot challenging Stuart to represent Brattleboro’s District 1, had her turn.
Libraries were an important part of Kornheiser’s childhood. “I grew up in a reading household, and we always read from books from the library,” she said. One favorite was Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, which her father read to her nearly every night. “I loved the rhythm of them,” and how the stories revealed “the cracks in colonization, which gives me hope,” she said.
Because of what she called her “alienated suburban childhood,” Kornheiser said she “looked for stories of alienation.” Some of those include John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, Henry Miller, and Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle. In the latter, Kornheiser said she read about “scarcity and gendered suffering."
During her sociology studies at Marlboro College, Kornheiser delved deeper into alienation. This time, she said, “I learned where the alienation comes from.” Through focusing on utopian literature, Kornheiser said she gained an understanding of “a time [...] when people were asked to and imagined a totally different world.” She believes these are relevant and attainable lessons.
Incumbent Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said her rural Minnesota town’s library was 10 miles from her home, it was “really tiny, and they had about 45 books."
Some of White’s favorite children’s books feature spirited girls. “In elementary school, my hero was Caddie Woodlawn,” the titular character of Carolyn Ryrie Brink’s novel, White said, “because she was a tomboy. She ran and climbed trees and beat up on her brother.” Pippi Longstocking was another hit with White. “I loved her. She was strong, she would lift up a horse with one arm!"
White said she has always loved the folk tale about The Flying Dutchman, and there’s a familial connection. “It’s a ghost ship that could never make port,” White said, “and my grandfather said he saw it twice. After that, he moved to North Dakota to get as far from the ocean as possible so he wouldn’t see it a third time. Seeing The Flying Dutchman portends trouble.”
As an adult, White has delved into political works such as John Stuart Mill’s writings on the rights of the individual versus the rights of the greater community.
She also noted Frank Bryan’s Real Democracy as “the best analysis of Town Meeting in Vermont. You have to read the footnotes — there’s a lot of humor in there.” Bryan is the co-author, with John McClaughry, of The Vermont Papers, which, White said, “is what we could do if we had the guts to do what we should to run the state."
Incumbent Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, said that a lot of his reading as a youth was in preparation for studying abroad. Before heading to Russia, he read the complete works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. To ready himself for a trip to Latin America, he read “lots of Latin American literature,” thanks to a list of 70-80 books given to him by his high school substitute teacher, Billy Stockwell.
Toleno made special mention of Stockwell and his influence. “I wanted to remember that little moment of impact,” he said.
Systems and sustainability
In the nonfiction department, Toleno mentioned The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows (et al) as influential to his world-view, especially regarding systems and sustainability. “It helped me understand how we’re part of complex systems [...]and how change happens in those systems,” he said, and noted that much of it is counterintuitive.
Growing up in what Toleno described as “an intellectual family,” reading M.F.K. Fisher’s gastronomy books while employed as a cook “gave me a frame of reference to see that food has value."
From Father Greg Boyle’s book, Tattoos on the Heart, Toleno learned “what it means to stand with people without standing in judgement of people.” The book, which portrays Boyle’s work with gangs in Los Angeles, inspired Toleno “to see if I can add value to [people’s] lives."
Brattleboro resident Wayne Vernon Estey, a first-time candidate for state senate, admitted he “can never remember the names of books,” and said, “I wasn’t read to as a child,” but he read to his children when they were young.
“We didn’t have any books in the house until my aunt brought my cousin’s collection of [Little] Golden Books,” he said. Soon afterward, Estey said, he began reading issues of Reader’s Digest when his mother was finished with them. He acknowledged enjoying the jokes in the magazine, and read one from a recent issue. The subject was a woman who was on trial for shoplifting. The punch line was about her husband asking the judge to increase her sentence.
While studying economics, Estey said he improved his vocabulary by reading The Wall Street Journal. “There was a word on the cover every day that I didn’t know,” he said, and it inspired him to look it up in the dictionary.
Estey had a recommendation for the audience: Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, by Thomas L. Friedman. “You should all read this,” because the book, said Estey, explains that “the world is changing so fast, people cannot keep up [...] and that’s why our society is so dysfunctional."
In her introduction of incumbent Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, LaTronica said, “When people ask me what I read, I say, ‘I read Becca Balint.’” LaTronica said Balint’s essays in the Brattleboro Reformer and her Facebook posts are inspiring.
“The first book I bought for myself was Rubyfruit Jungle,” Balint said.
Finding oneself at the library
She described realizing she was “different,” and trying to find some way to learn about herself, perhaps through the experiences of others. Balint discovered the existence of Rubyfruit Jungle from a newspaper article.
But, how could she navigate through the shame to get a copy of the book? “I was afraid to take it out of the library,” she said.
Her solution: take a different bus to a book store across town.
When she got to the clerk’s counter, “I was so nervous, I slipped the book between two magazines to throw them off the case, but one was Ms. magazine!” she said, which prompted some knowing laughter from the audience.
Balint describes Rubyfruit Jungle as “not a salacious book. It’s an autobiography about a woman who realizes she’s gay.” Still, she hid the book from her siblings.
“I think about all those kids and adults who come to the library trying to find themselves,” Balint said.
Another book that helped Balint along was Bette Midler’s biography, which she read in eighth grade. “This was pre-‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ Bette Midler,” said Balint, who noted, “This was Bette Midler singing in gay bathhouses dressed as a hot dog!"
To decompress from her role as Senate Majority Leader, Balint, like her colleague Jeanette White, reads mysteries. She explained why: A mystery “is messy. Then it’s tidy at the end. Which is not what the Legislature is about.”
At the end of the presentation, LaTronica told the candidates, “By the power vested in me, I declare you all deputy librarians."
Audience member Susie Webster-Toleno, who is the spouse of Rep. Toleno, was the only person who answered LaTronica’s request for book recommendations for the candidates.
Webster-Toleno gave a few suggestions, and said she enjoyed the event so much, “I would come out once a month to hear other groups talk about what books they like."