Living history interpretor brings Vermont writer to life

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(Host) The Vermont writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher lived in Arlington, but she was also a citizen of the world. Eleanor Roosevelt called her one of the ten most important women of her time.

Fisher died in 1958. But she’s still speaking to Vermont audiences, thanks to her living history interpretor.

VPR’s Susan Keese explains.

(Keese) Even in her costume — big flowered hat, long dress, and white gloves, Helene Lang doesn’t physically resemble Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

(Lang) “Because I’m fairly tall and large, and Dorothy was very petite. But nobody notices.”

(Keese) Audiences generally surrender willingly to Lang’s portrayal, even in the southern Vermont towns where Fisher is still remembered personally by some.

In Arlington she’s revered, not just for her for her 40 books of fiction and non fiction but for her strong convictions, her civic-mindedness and her quiet generosity. No one knows how many local children she sent to college.

(Lang) “I was once talking and a woman raised her hand and she said, Did you know you sent my mother to girl scout camp?”

(Keese) Lang, who lives in Montpelier, is a retired University of Vermont literature professor. She’s one of just over a dozen first-person interpretors’ sponsored by the Vermont Council on the Humanities. They tour the state bringing their favorite historic figures to life.

(Lang) “It’s wonderful to play the role of someone, particularly if you admire that someone.”

(Keese) Fisher’s father was a college president. She grew up mostly on campuses, or traveling in Europe with her artist mother. But she always loved her visits to the Family homestead in Arlington.

When she married in 1907 she settled in Arlington with her husband John, to pursue her writing and raise her two children.

During World War I John decided to become an ambulance driver in France.

(Lang) “But she said she was not going to let John go off alone, and besides the children would be lonesome, so she brought the two children to France during World War I.”

(Keese) While in France, Fisher brought in Braille machines for soldiers blinded in the war.

Back in Vermont, Fisher became an advocate of the Montessouri method of child rearing. She believed children should be encouraged to develop as individuals, rather than forced into social norms. She even had a radio program in which she gave advice to parents.

Those beliefs are epitomized in her book, “Understood Betsey” in which a young girl blossoms when she’s sent to live with relatives in Vermont.

In 1939 Fisher asked Vermont school children to bring in pennies to bring children from war-torn Europe to Arlington for a respite. The idea spread beyond Vermont to the whole United States.

(Lang as Fisher) “And when we were all done collecting our pennies we were able to raise 130 thousand dollars which enable us to bring a train full of children from Europe to Arlington.”

Lang slips easily in and out of her role as Dorothy as she talks.

(Lang) “My husband sometimes says around the house I don’t know if I’m talking to Dorothy or to Helene.”

(Keese) During her performances, she makes it easy. As long as she’s got her big brimmed hat and little white gloves on, she’s Dorothy. But even as Helene, she says, any similarity to her role model is completely intentional.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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