The Bookshelf: Author John Brighton Remembers the Sullivan County of the 1960s

Dec 20, 2019

John Brighton, author of the new memoir, The Forgotten County.
Credit Peter Biello/NHPR

When New Hampshire author John Brighton was six years old, his family bought a lakeside farm in Washington, a small town in New Hampshire's Sullivan County.

There he met farmers, road workers, and war veterans who, to Brighton, were the very essence of the rapidly changing rural New Hampshire landscape. Brighton's new memoir recalls the Washington of the 1960s and 70s, and the people who lived there.

NHPR’s All Things Considered host Peter Biello sat down with Brighton to discuss his new book, The Forgotten County: A Story of Community, Family and Friendship.

Read John Brighton’s Top 5 Reading Recommendations:

  1. Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War by Ben Macintyre. History of the British Secret Air Service (SAS) and how it evolved from an idea to its first action in the deserts of North Africa and later exploits on the European Continent in World War II. 
  1. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. This book is filled with excellent advice for aspiring writers with wonderful suggestions for dealing with the ups and downs that accompany the process of writing.
  1. The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West by David McCullough. In this, his most recent book, McCullough brings to life the characters and hardships faced by those settlers (many of whom were from New England) who first migrated into the Ohio Valley.
  1. No Silent Night: The Christmas Battle for Bastogne by Leo Barron and Don Cygan.  During the 1944 Battle of the Bulge, the pivotal battle for Bastogne was waged during one of the coldest winters on record. Of particular interest for New Hampshire readers is the story of a 1940 University of New Hampshire graduate who returned to the site of the battle after the war.
  1. The John McPhee Reader by John McPhee. Excerpts from twelve of McPhee’s books that demonstrate his mastery of the creative nonfiction genre. 

The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. 

The book is called The Forgotten County. Why forgotten?

The forgotten county, it's a real place, but also the forgotten county serves as a metaphor, really, in many ways for how as a society we interact and perhaps don't interact with each other the way perhaps we did in the past.

Can you give an example?

Well, I think people, particularly in small-town communities, everyone knows everyone. And that's still the case today for the most part. The dynamic of technology and the ability to communicate quickly, instantly with anyone has changed that. And just the atmosphere of our of our country today in terms of how we treat each other sometimes.

One example in your book that comes to mind is the example of the general store, where you write about how the general store was not just a place where you stop once a day to get stuff. It was a place where you also went to connect with people and get information. You mentioned technology changing the way things are now. To what extent is technology eroded the importance of a stop like a general store, in your view?

Well, fortunately, there still is a general store in Washington. It's a wonderful place to visit. But I do think it's perhaps easier to sit at home and turn on the television and collect your news and turn on your laptop or your cell phone and look at things quickly from that point, rather than going out, reaching out, and finding people with whom to speak and interact.

You write about a lot of different people in this in this memoir, people you worked with on road crews, war veterans who lived around the pond, just people you met in the town of Washington or people your parents knew, and you write that they shaped you. How do you feel like they shaped you?

I think having had the opportunity to get to know people in a small environment, in a small town, created an approach to the way I interact with people. And I've always been anxious to speak with people and learn about them. And hopefully to some degree they'd like to do the same and create those immediate, really brief relationships that are always fun. And so I think I've lived my life, tried to live my life that way.

In this memoir, you write about leaving New Hampshire. You take a trip out West when you were young. You worked on Cape Cod for a little while, but you're back here in New Hampshire. What is it that draws you back to New Hampshire?

I have just always loved my home state in spite of the cold winters, which I used to think 'why are the why are the grownups all upset about this cold weather?' Now I get it. It's a little different as you move along in life. But it's an interesting dynamic because so many young people today move away and they don't come back. And I think there are so many opportunities here and potential opportunities to be creative and do things that you see happening, not as much as I think people would like to see, but I just have always had an affinity affinity for it. I love to be in the woods. On a day like today, as cold as it is, if I could find some deep snow and put on a pair of snow shoes, I can't think of a better place to be. There's peace there. And I think there's a lot of that in New Hampshire, it's a very special gift that we have.

We are always looking for reading recommendations from listeners like you, so send them our way. The address is books@NHPR.org. Tell us your name, the town you're from, the title of the book, the author, and why you liked the book so much. You can also tweet us @nhprbookshelf.