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Vermont author and educator on National Book Award nom: 'It's a lesson of persistence'

Gather, Kenneth Cadow's debut novel, was 20 years in the making.
Gather, Kenneth Cadow's debut novel, was 20 years in the making.

A Vermont author in a small community was last week nominated for a big award.

Pompanoosuc resident Kenneth Cadow’s debut novel, Gather, is a finalist in the Young People's Literature division for the 2023 National Book Award, one of the country's most prestigious book honors. 

Gather follows Ian, a teenager in rural Vermont as he deals with common teenager struggles, and something much bigger —  his mom's substance misuse disorder. 

Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch caught up with Cadow before heading to Bradford for his day job as co-principal of Oxbow High School. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: I'll ask you about the book award in just a moment. But first, this book uses first-person narration to kind of take the reader into athestory. I'd love to know more about that. How did you find Ian's voice? And is there any of your voice or anyone in your life in the way that he tells his story?

A man smiles for the camera.
Kenneth Cadow

Kenneth Cadow: Boy, yes. Ian's voice really came about from listening to a whole lot to students over the last 20 years in Vermont. Also, when I was in grad school, I took an oral history course course at Dartmouth, and I hung out at hunting camp. So I did the oral history of hunting in the Norwich woods, which was sort of a way of life that seemed to be in jeopardy. What struck me was when I was in those hunting camps, those teenagers were incredibly articulate and much more talkative. And really loved interacting with adults, which is not necessarily something you always see in school. They were just so passionate and engaged. That was something that stayed with me for a very long time. And so I sketched out the plot way back then.

The title of the book, Gather, ties into a big character in the book — that's Ian's dog. Tell me about the significance of Gather in this narrative.

It has multiple meanings. Of course, the dog's name comes from — he was going to name it Hunter, because it's sort of been on its own, takes care of itself and really fits with a lot about Ian's identity. But as he sees the dog sort of fending for itself and feeding itself, he realizes that this dog is really more of a gatherer than a hunter. So he names it Gather. Gather is also really about the community that comes together to support you. He goes through a lot of struggles. One of the biggest struggles in the book, maybe more societal, is how hard it is to hang on to the family land that's been in the family for hundreds of years.

In your book, Ian's mom is living with addiction. We know that Vermont has had record numbers of opioid overdose deaths in the last three years; it's on pace to break that record again this year. Why did you decide to include that as a major thread in the book? What were you hoping to achieve by approaching it from a teen's perspective?

You know, I've seen it a lot. Kids who are afraid to leave home, who don't know what they're going home to. There have been times where I've been in meetings with students that we were trying to keep in school. We brought a bunch of people to the table, including a parent. I've seen parents who obviously had taken something shortly before that actually fall asleep at the conference table.

I wrote the plot 20 years ago. This was so real; I felt like it had to be in there. The real issue is maybe less addiction than it is the pain that people are trying to escape by being in jobs that are undervalued. And trying to live lives that feel undervalued and medicating it — even almost against their will.

Let me ask you about your nomination for the National Book Award. It's a big deal in the publishing world. How did that feel to learn that you're a finalist? Like, how did you get that call? Where were you when you got the call? And then what did the next couple of days look like and sound like?

Oh, boy. Well, I was actually in a school leadership meeting. I opened my personal email and saw this — right on the top was an email between my agent and my editor back and forth with a lot of exclamation points. And it said that I've been longlisted for the National Book Award. And then I forwarded it to my wife. And then I really was trying to pay attention to the job. But I also didn't realize that the long list was such a short number of books. And then my phone started buzzing in my pocket. And it was buzzing like crazy. And so I took it out of my pocket and then put it in my briefcase.

The real issue is maybe less addiction than it is the pain that people are trying to escape by being in jobs that are undervalued. And trying to live lives that feel undervalued and medicating it — even almost against their will.
Kenneth Cadow

Then that night, I had a school board meeting — that was really where my focus was. And then I got home, my wife had a huge meal on the table and a bottle of champagne. And she was so excited. And at that point, it hit me that "Oh, this is kind of a big deal." You know, I thought when I handed in my book and my manuscript on July 1 2022 — that also happens to be the day that I became co-principal at Oxbow High School.

Over the next couple of days, it did start to settle in as people who had been reading the New Yorker, where the announcement was initially made, were sending emails saying "Congratulations." And it's really exciting. And I had to buy a tux, which I've never owned. Now I have to go to Manhattan.

Is the tux flannel at least? That brings a little Vermont to New York City with you there.

Well, it's funny, I said to Lisa, my wife, I said, "Maybe you can just wear Carhartts. You know, I hear they're in all over the place these days. And she she said, "No." (laughs)

Plus this being, you know, a debut novel, and not exactly in a publishing mecca — a small town in Vermont — what does that suggest that you're able to have this kind of achievement with this major nomination? Like, what would your students at Oxbow think of this example of what maybe they could do? What could they take away from that?

Yeah, it was 20 years in the making. So I hope it's a lesson of persistence. When you're only 17, you know, 20 years seems like more than a lifetime. Persisting over time — there's just such huge value in that persisting in relationships, or work, or a vision. I hope that's what they take away from that.

Well, the awards are announced in New York City on Nov. 15. You mentioned you've got your tuxedo ready. Special guest is Oprah Winfrey, I'm hearing at these National Book Awards. What if you win? What happens then?

Oh, boy. I think I'll be a busy person. You know, really the most fulfilling work that I do is really working with students, and just seeing them become aware of the world and make sense out of it. I'm going to spend a lot of time trying to strike a balance between being present for Vermont kids and also doing right by all the trust that was put in me for publishing this book.

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