A simple and beautiful tale within a tale, “A Vermont Tale” starts with the journey of two young children on a train from the home where their parents are “having trouble” into the spectacular winter wonderland of their grandparents’ home. The early parts of the story are reminiscent of The Polar Express (1985) by Chris Van Allsberg, an author and illustrator with whom Helprin would later work.
The first half of the story is taken up by a child’s-eye view of the beautiful snow-covered farm, the cozy house, and the love shown the children by their grandparents. Then, one blizzard-bound night, the grandfather begins a story of two arctic loons that visit a pond on the farm. Loons are birds that mate for life, but the male of this pair forsakes his partner to spend time with another female from a visiting flock. The reader suspects that this is a story of the children’s parents’ relationship but soon discovers that it is the grandparents’ story instead: The female loon is said to have flown off to another pond far away, and the grandmother interjects “Baltimore.” After a description of very humanlike remorse and reconciliation, the birds are reunited and, it is assumed, live happily ever after. However, in the last line of the story, the boy sees that his grandmother’s eyes “though beautiful and blue, were as cold as ice.” This detail recasts the entire preceding story, the beauty of the winter, the idyllic peace of the farmhouse, and the grandparents’ apparently warm relationship in a much colder light.
This is a strong cautionary tale of infidelity and the permanent damage that it can do to a marriage. It is one of the few relationships in Helprin’s stories that is not loving and true, and even in this case, there is no evil or meanness implied but merely good people gone wrong.