Monday 6 February 2023

The Farm in the Green Mountains by Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer (1987)



In the 1930's Alice and Carl Zuckmayer ('Zuck') and their two daughters are forced to flee Germany. After living in Austria and Switzerland they end up in the USA where they then spend five years living in Backwoods Farm, near Barnard in Vermont. Alice wrote letters to her family, and these letters became this memoir, which was published in German in 1949.


After arriving in the US the Zuckmayers live in in Los Angeles and New York, but during the summers they spend time in rented properties in Barnard, Vermont, slowly getting used to a relatively simple life. After three summers they decide to move there permanently. As Elisa Albert writes in her introduction: 'These were urbane sophisticates, mind you. These were celebrated artistic intellectuals with connections, good clothes. (..) These were not people who knew from farming. They had no clue if or when they might ever return home. The very idea of 'home' had become impossibly muddled, if not permanently eradicated. They were emigrants. They were immigrants. They had no choice. They had to find themselves a new home, and they had to get to work. They chose  the farm in Vermont. They got to work.'

They decide to rent Backwoods Farm and it seems this is where they find their new home.  They learn by necessity. They learn by doing, with help from the many brochures published by the US Department of Agriculture that they order. Again I quote from the excellent introduction: 'Farm life turns out to be a never-ending cascade of chores. Backbreaking, spirit-bending labor. But 'making the best of a difficult situation' is what New-Englanders do, apparently and Alice fits right in.'

They decide to keep chickens and have chicken houses built. Later they add geese, ducks, pigs and goats. Goats, 'with an unquenchable taste for roses, shoes, green apples, lawn chairs, pieces of laundry, and cigarette butts',  are not easy animals to look after: 'they became the object of our hearfelt love and the reason for our wildest outbreaks of rage. They were fun and trouble, joy and vexation. They subjected our feeling to rapid swings between a desire to murder them and a wish to hug them tenderly.'
For three years the farm is infested with rats. They try everything to get rid of them, with poison as a last resort. 'Two years after their arrival they suddenly disappeared. Whether it was that we had really fooled them a few times, and a few of their elders had themselves gotten poisoned corn, ot whether it was that we had put up too many fences even an eel couldn't wriggle through, or whether it was simply that they were seized with wanderlust and went in search of a better farm, we never knew.'
Alice clearly enjoys life in the country, with friendly neighbours, a local newspaper that tells you who has been staying where and why, and deliveries to your mailbox. 'Only after we returned to Europe did it occur to me how unusual it was that nothing was stolen from these widely separated mailboxes standing by the open highway. At our mailbox treasures such as whiskey, tobacco, meat, coffee, etc., were often deposited by the letter carier, and in all the years we were there we always found everything just as it had been left.'

As I mentioned, the book is made up of Alice's letters home and of course the people she wrote to would have known things the reader does not. I would have liked some more explanation here and there. For instance, I kept wondering: what did these people live on? Setting up the farm and buying the animals must have cost a lot of money, as would sending their daughters to boarding schools. Alice mentions selling eggs etc. but I doubt they could live on that.  Perhaps they lived on Zuck's earnings as a writer? Being a librarian I loved her chapters on (or 'ode to') the Dartmouth Library but I wish she would have told us more about her research. Why was she researching the early Middle Ages? And so on... I also would have loved a map.

The Zuckmayers have a daughter called Winnetou ... Now, I don't know if he is well known in English speaking countries, but generations in the Netherlands grew up with the books of Karl May, a German author who wrote a seemingly endless stream of adventure stories. The two protagonists of his books set in the American West are called Old Shatterhand and Winnetou. I read Carl was a big Karl May fan and so he named his daughter Winnetou. I couldn't help feeling sorry for the girl. I notice that in later life she went by " Maria".

At first I had trouble getting to grips with this book, as parts of it are not written in paragraphs but in a series of sentences/statements, which I found odd and had to get used to. Have a look at a page to see what I mean: 

Because of the fact that no information is added to the letters I constantly had the feeling that I was reading snippets of a story that I just would not get to know completely, but in spite of that I found it an enjoyable read.



  1. This sounds like a good one to add to my wish list - thank you

  2. Not a book I have come across. They certainly loved life in Vermont by the sound of things, and indeed must have had some income for animals aren't cheap to feed over winter.

    I take it they went back to live in Europe after the War?

    1. Yes they did, coming back often to visit.

    2. “A Part of Myself” by Carl Zuckmayer tells how they found and nurtured Backwoods Farm, as well as his war experiences and his career as a playwright