Monday, August 26, 2013

Visiting the Teeds


It's been a long time since I lived in Vermont.  But I like to return for a visit once every few years.  Usually by digging out a copy of Jeff Danziger's Teed Stories and ripping through them in an afternoon.

Jeff Danziger is best known as a political cartoonist. One of the very best, for my money.  But he also used to draw extraordinary cartoons  about what it's like to be a Vermonter -- the contentious town meetings, the ambiguous social standing of the snowplow driver, the extraordinary things that fall from the mouths of foreigners from out-of-state.  Along the way, he started chronicling the Teed Family -- Ma, Pa, and their 26 year-old unpaid field hand and son, Hiram.  They're farmers on one of the least profitable farms in a state that has its share, but nobody can deny that they lead rich lives.  There are two collections of the Teed cartoons available and I hear the occasional rumor that they may still be appearing in Vermont newspapers.  Or maybe that's just wishful thinking.

Which brings us around to the single collection of prose tales, Teed Stories.  I'll let Danziger set the scene:

The Teed farm becomes more and more of an anachronism with each passing year.  With family farms dying all over the country or being plowed up for condominiums, the fact that the Teeds can even stay where they are is quite amazing.  But Pa has worked out a system of not spending much money, a system made possible by not having much to spend.  The Teeds grow their own potatoes, raise their own chickens, make their own cheese and preserves, produce their own vegetables, and even keep a few turkeys around for the Thanksgiving trade.  Ma bakes her own bread and cookies, and Pa has been known to brew a little silly stuff to ward off the winter tremors.  The rest of the world has grown desperately interdependent, but not the Teeds.  They can't afford to.

These are a kind of story that has become almost extinct because, outside of genre magazines, there's next to no market for them:  Stories which exist simply to entertain -- to tell an amusing story, make you feel good, and then let you get on with your day.  Back before television came along, these would have been published in the slick magazines, backing up the latest from F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway and they would have found a national following.  The kind of folks who read this blog would likely have the collected tales among their books.  Now you have to have lived in Vermont to have heard of them.

The adventures are small -- William (that's Pa) Teed manages to keep his truck (originally a 1947 Ford) going one more year, pays his taxes, or removes yet one more unnecessary part from his tractor, bringing it another step closer to operating with perfect efficiency and no moving parts.  Ida (Ma), who is the apotheosis of the farm wife, bakes her famous meat loaf and maintains the harmony of the family.  And Hiram -- well, he's a young man so he probably does something or other when he's not working on the farm, but that's none of our business, really.

Mostly, these guys are just plain good company.  And Danziger is the right narrator for them: playful, just a touch ironic, and on the side of the angels.

Each story has a couple of illustrations.  I can't say that I've spent all that much time on farms, but I've been there just enough that they tug at my heart.  I've been down that muddy, rutty April road and inside that meticulously recorded sugar shack.  It makes me feel good to go back for a visit.



Unknown said...

My folks retired to northern Vermont--how I missed reading anything of the Teeds when I visited I don't know, but they sound like charming stories and cartoons. And given that I'm now building a small farm in SC, I think I must search these out.

Michael Swanwick said...

I imagine you're in a particularly good situation to appreciate them. They combine a fine sense of the pleasures of farming with a realistic view of the amount of work involved.