Something this dire – a town of people so opposed to paying taxes that they become a country-wide hotspot for bear attacks – should not be this funny. Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling carefully walks the line between Bill Bryson and a VICE documentarian while spinning this wild story of a Free Town and the beasts- man and animal alike, within. This collection of people, carefully and deliberately documented by Hongoltz-Hetling, shoot themselves in the foot so many times and with such ferocity that it is amazing the whole town of Grafton isn’t just a smoking hole in the ground.
I know Grafton, as I know New Hampshire; I have been an accidental resident of the Granite State for the last 14 years. I went to school down in Cheshire county and stayed; I’ve lived and worked allover the place, from down on the MA border to way out in the Great North Woods. I got married here, I have a home here, and my career is here- none of which was really planned. I happened to be here, so I continued to follow opportunities further and further away from my Tri-State Area upbringing. When I lived nearer to Grafton, not long from when this account takes place, I used to drive that stretch of Route 4 on the regular; the dilapidated sign for The Ruggles Mine is still stamped in my brain.
Grafton is a lot like many other small rural towns in the North East; boarded up stores, countless “for sale” signs, handmade “private property” posts, ramshackle buildings, dead cars, and people working in their yards with firearms strapped to their hip. People who want to give you, as Hongoltz-Hetling experienced many times, “friendly advice” while flashing a threatening smile and the butt of their gun.
New Hampshire is full of towns that flourished pre-Civil War; Grafton itself housed kilns, mills, and farms that all dried up as people and industry moved west. Many of these towns left old stone walls, schoolhouses, and maybe a church dotting the rapidly reforesting landscape, but Grafton had something else: lots of bears, and a town worth of Libertarians!
Hongoltz-Hetling paints a bizarre and often hilarious picture of a small town besieged by both bears and Libertarians. He uses bits of historical anecdote and research to illustrate the terrible destiny of Grafton; even pre-America folks out in those woods would do anything to avoid paying taxes- and would get continuously mauled by bears! The area has long been a magnet for self-styled free thinkers, and this account holds our hand and introduces us to the thinkers, movers, and shakers of the Free Town experiment. In the early 2000s, a handful of Libertarians from allover the country rolled in to town and began to dismantle the already sparse infrastructure of the town, focusing on the freedom to protect one’s own property and not much else.
Things went, as I am sure you can imagine, off the rails in a stunning way. I took copious notes while reading this book, as it is full with baffling story after baffling story. I laughed a lot, and gasped out loud in shock in equal measure. I had quotes on quotes saved up to share here, but no- you have to read this for yourself. You have to let Hongoltz-Hetling guide you through this mire of anti-government invaders, old-home townsfolk, and the bears that terrorize and delight them all.
A few words of warning; since we are talking rural New England and bears, we are definitely talking about graphic situations. There is mauling, poaching, and the eating of pets aplenty. All of these instances are documented with care, but they are gruesome none the less. There are also descriptions of ideas held by people both within and outside of the Libertarian party that are pretty extreme; Hongoltz-Hetling handles them with grace and refrains from veering into the salacious, which is a difficult feat considering the actions and ideas of said people!
This is required reading for anyone with a spark of curiosity; I have a list of people in mind that need to read this book, and it will be going out to many for the upcoming holiday. Now is the best time to read a book from the safety and comfort of home- why not read a book full of humor, horror, and top-notch reporting?
*I received this ARC from NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.