For many years, the Lordstown Complex, a GM auto factory in Northeast Ohio, was a landmark along my drive home to family.
“Not long now,” I’d mutter to myself or say to my kids, if they were with me, and we’d marvel at the sea of cars in the auto plant’s gargantuan parking lot—and at the cars we couldn’t see, being made inside the plant’s operations. Lordstown, something like a prayer and a beacon both, calling me back to the place I still call home.
Poetical references aside, Lordstown was an economic hub for the area, for decades. In the 60s, when my dad first moved to the Cleveland area, met my mom, and married, that plant was making the Chevy Impala and then the Pontiac Firebird. And the people who worked on the line were making salaries better than anything my dad could make as a draftsman. But we all know what happened to auto-making over the next few decades. And, with each pass in recent years, that Lordstown plant held fewer cars in the parking lot, meaning fewer employees working fewer shifts making fewer cars. Last I remember in its history as an auto plant, Lordstown was the home of the Chevy Cruze. I hate to disparage, but how many Cruze drivers do you know?
It was with this point of reference—a familiar setting—that I came to Edward McClelland’s debut novel, Running for Home, out now from Bottom Dog Press. An accomplished journalist and writer of nonfiction—I loved his How to Speak Midwestern—McClelland has covered and written about the post-industrial Midwest, from which he hails, for a long time. This is the first novel for the Lansing, Michigan, native–and it hit home for me.
Running for Home opens on the Empire Motors body plant, “a permanent symbol of my hometown, as well as a gateway to opportunity,” says the narrator, high-school student and runner, Kevin. What follows is a story of the fall of industry in a place, coinciding with the rise of “a slight Midwestern youth,” our protagonist, in this coming-of-age story.
From the jacket copy: “In this moving new novel, [Kevin] deals with a rough high school and a vanishing factory town through a devotion to his running sport and his caring family. Aided by a spunky girlfriend, a humble-wise coach, loyal teammates, and his earned self-awareness, he learns the value of reliance and home.”
What sets this coming-of-age story apart? A narrator with a voice and a passion that ring absolutely true. And they should. McClelland ran track and cross country at his high school, across the street from a Fisher Body plant. McClelland creates a Michigan town setting that leaves no detail of the early 80s unexplored; from the fashion and games popular with teenagers—like windbreakers and Galaga—to movies and music—like All the Right Moves and The Sex Pistols.
In this novel, the author doesn’t shy away from questions of economics and environmental concerns, things that are often at odds when it comes to industry. From Kevin’s perspective as a runner, we get a good view. There’s “the ever-visible rainbow slick on the river’s surface, the effluent of automaking” and the sweetly sick smell of chemicals on the air. Once the plant closes, Kevin both appreciates being able to breathe a little easier and knows life will be tougher, going forward. It hits home when his dad must take early retirement.
The author is also adept at dramatizing and characterizing the generational differences among auto workers, like the narrator’s father and grandfather before him. What did cars mean to men, especially, through these decades? To build one with other men on a line? What does it mean when your life’s work is sent elsewhere? Of course, what is done to a place is also done to the psyche of a place. From this book, I got an insider’s view, including of union operations—and what striking and winning or losing looked like in this era of plant closures and relocations.
What propels the plot, outside of the external forces of the town’s industry declining, is Kevin’s striving for success on the track. His passion is crystal clear:
I ran because I was a runner, because running was my nature. I believed the fastest form of myself was the most perfect form of myself.
In writing fiction, we are often taught to have some kind of a “ticking clock,” to propel our plots and keep our readers turning pages. In this novel, the ticking clock is a stopwatch, and, race after race, we root for Kevin’s success in a sport where fractions of a second mean the difference between success and failure, between a scholarship to college or a ticket to an uncertain future.
What I liked the most—and you might guess by the novel’s title—is that this is not a story about success by getting out. That is an all-too-common trope. But it’s not only a trope in fiction. In an American era of urban sprawl and overcrowding, the post-industrial Midwest still has many places that lose more people each year, many young people among them, than they gain.
Leaving is easy. Just ask me. Staying, despite–or maybe because of–the odds is harder.
Do you have a favorite coming-of-age story set in your native place? Did you stick close to your hometown? Do you run? I’d love to hear about it. And, what are you reading or writing this week?
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Ohio Apertures (2021) is Robert Miltner’s latest work, a collection of short creative nonfiction pieces that comprise a memoir. The author of two books of prose poetry, poetry chapbooks, and a short story collection, his memoir represents a cohesive journey. From stories of youth to young and older adulthood; from reflections of Ohio to the American West and trips abroad; from journeys by foot and by car—the car such a potent symbol of the post-industrial Midwest—the reader journeys with the author, and it is a satisfying and solace-making trip that doesn’t look away from the remains of Midwestern heydays past. Miltner provides the objects of his looking and perceiving and also the vehicle of that looking, and I think that matters in studies of observation, in studies of life, which is what we readers want in memoir—the particular and personal expanded to the universal, expanded to include our lives, too.
The objects Miltner ruminates upon in these short essays are often small—he’s so good at detail. There’s the watch pocket in a pair of Levi’s; the pneumatic tube at the bank drive thru; the crescent roll of youth and croissant of maturity; the sound an old car makes, like “sarcastic laughter”; the song that was playing at the bar after he was robbed as a young man. There’s a lot of music in these pages—a few of these pieces feel like they have their own soundtracks—but most of the music comes from the lyrical quality of these essays. And the quiet, the white space, the musical rests, the silence that is, Miltner says, “both the context for prayer and prayer itself.”
Always, the author returns to Ohio, the name alone like a song, and to the state’s flowing rivers and Great Lake Erie and its shale coastline that makes for violent, crescendo-like waves at its cliffs. My favorite piece in the collection is the last, “Black River Bridge,” an ode to a bridge that the author has traveled many times to cross his home-town river. He speaks to it, lovingly, in this essay: “Poor Black River, you lonely stepsister in this sad fairy tale of Ohio rivers…No one, lost river of industry, dark river of my youth, kisses your mouth each night along your shale and sand shoreline.” Though somber in tone, the piece ends optimistically, or in a tone I like to think of as Northeast Ohio optimism—which is as tempered as our steel.
Recently, I asked the author a few questions about this collection, about his writing process and projects, and about writing in community:
Robert, Ohio Apertures is a lyric memoir in short pieces. You’ve written a lot of poetry and fiction, but this represents your debut memoir. What do you like about creative nonfiction? Were there things you could say about your life that you couldn’t say—or hadn’t said yet—through other mediums that you said in these pages?
I view myself as a writer, which I use in the comprehensive sense, rather than identifying by a single genre, because it feels restrictive. In terms of genre, I’ve felt compelled to “contain multitudes.” Writing in a new genre is like acquiring a new language; it’s like becoming bilingual or, for me with Ohio Apertures, trilingual. I used to think adding genres would be about learning the guidelines for new puzzles. Any new genre is like a puzzle, and what is produced is a piece of writing that is one solution to the puzzle. In that way, my collection of short stories was, for me, a collection of individual solutions to a general question regarding the art and craft of short fiction. What I discovered was an art akin to drama, to theater. I create characters then put them in situations; or, I imagine situations then insert characters. Variations on puzzles. What I learned was a way of speaking through masks, wherein the first person singular “I” is not me being lyrical, but some other person engaged in narrative action—it’s not me speaking.
When the first person singular “I” speaks in a poem or a creative nonfiction, that’s me. It’s like revelatory song lyrics or confessional poetry. And it’s risky to speak for yourself, and safer to speak through a character. In looking back at And Your Bird Can Sing, my collection of short fictions, there are several pieces that are very autobiographical, and so much so, that I can now see them as memoir that I didn’t recognize as such. So here is what my response to your question has been arching toward:
What I like about creative nonfiction, or lyric memoir, or lyric-narrative memoir, is the element of risk. Of being open and honest and as true as is possible to the material. It’s the risk of being vulnerable.
Ironically, while I was shaping individual pieces of creative nonfiction—memoir, lyric essays, narrative nonfiction, travelogue pieces—into a book where I was experiencing the most lyric freedom, I was concurrently shaping a new manuscript of poetry in which I was developing these sparse, minimalist prose poems that I can only define as not exactly a-lyrical, but more like lyric zero; they’re textual equivalents to Edward Hopper paintings: empty rooms where we sense the presence of people who are absent. Crazy, huh?
It’s like I transferred all my lyrical attention from my prose poems into my creative nonfiction memoir. The risk was exhilarating and the results of both manuscripts generated exciting new material through which I have discovered this: choice of genre is really about where I stand in relationship to the subject matter. It’s like the Wallace Stevens poem in which he writes, “I was of three minds,/Like a tree/In which there are three blackbirds.” If I read the three minds as the three genres I write—poetry, fiction, and now nonfiction—the blackbirds can be seen as the creative impulse. But what’s most interesting to me is that Stevens isn’t really addressing the puzzle of the three minds—instead he’s telling us that the blackbirds are in a tree. For them, it’s about where they perch. And for me, now, writing is about where I stand, finding the site that allows the best relationship to the subject matter.
I asked your friend and mine, memoirist David Giffels once if memoirists have great memories—I thought,how else to capture a moment from one’s distant past? He told me that, for him, there’s a lot of research involved, even for personal memoir—research in the way of interviews of family and friends who might have a different perspective on a past event. Can you tell us a little about your research process for one of the pieces in this book?
David is a brilliant nonfiction writer; he came into the creative nonfiction room through the journalism door. His The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt really made me keenly aware of the necessity of detail, exactness, and precision in crafting creative nonfiction. His work showed me possibilities that lead me into the creative nonfiction room. I was also influenced by the Appalachian Ohio writer Richard Hague, whom I met when we were in college together; he came to creative nonfiction through the poetry door. In his Milltown Natural, about growing up in Steubenville, Ohio—a city that is categorized as both Rust Belt and Appalachia—Richard fleshed out his collection of creative nonfiction pieces with memorable details that made his Steubenville three-dimensional. But he did something else: as a poet writing prose, the level of attention to language, syntax, the sound of words and the rhythm of sentences showed me the possibility of lyrical prose. He wonderfully disrupted my sense of how poetry and nonfiction are like lost cousins.
One of the epigrams in Ohio Apertures is from W. G. Sebald, whose creative nonfiction is mesmerizing because almost every third sentence is like a labyrinth: “You adulterate the truth as you write. There isn’t any pretense that you try to arrive at the literal truth. And the only consolation when you confess to this flaw is that you are seeking to arrive at poetic truth.” Sebald argues for the craft of writing, the attention to make art—that the idea of poetic truth is akin to an aesthetic truth. Sebald laid down the dictum to balance the literal with the poetic, and, of course, poetic license is as valid here, due the lyrical nature of both poetry and memoir. But I learned in writing my book that while the poetic/lyric/aesthetic truth is the goal, it can only be accomplished when the literal truth—much of it sharpened into precision—is researched.
The piece I recall researching the most—or perhaps the most satisfyingly—is “Desperados,” which in early drafts was very much a linear narrative only. Denver’s Capitol Hill in the 1970s; a sort of “bank” robbery; the Broker Bar on 17th Street; the culture class of the bankers, lawyers, and part-time college student working for a shady landscape company. The need for such geographical precision necessary for linear narrative is like filming a documentary. But the challenge in this piece was to get the poetic/lyric/aesthetic to be equal, co-present, operating almost like it was a character in the narrative. I began to imagine this piece as a film I could see, with me as the director and lead actor. The numerous references to film, to movie acting, the final scene where I imagine film credits, I had to research that. And when I decided a good film needs a soundtrack, I turned to Glenn Frey of the Eagles. I had to know the songs that were released before the day of the robbery, and that had me running down song lyrics.
Those literal details, augmented by mirrors and movie screen allusions—as well as resonant images, emotion, language play, leaps and jump cuts—bring together the literal and the aesthetic for a poetic closure to the piece.
In a recent post here at Rust Belt Girl, I talked about the idea of writing companions, authors we avid readers and writers follow faithfully and who shape our work. In your essay, “Into the Bargain,” you describe finding a volume of Raymond Carver’s poetry, Where Water Comes Together with Other Water at a bargain book store, and you’re “entranced and transported.” The book becomes a “talisman” for you, for what it helps you discover about yourself upon reading and re-reading. Can you tell us more about what this writing companion did for you as a poet—and a writer and as founding editor of The Raymond Carver Review?
Toward the end of that piece, I contrast J. D. Salinger’s The Cather in the Rye,a book that I felt I identified with in my adolescence, with Raymond Carver’s Where Water Comes Together with Other Water, a book that I identified with during my mid-life transition. There are books and libraries and reading throughout Ohio Apertures. I was a shy, bookish middle child who stuttered, and I became a high school teacher and then a university professor, and an author. Actually, I went on to write my doctoral dissertation on Carver’s poetry, more from a sociological lens than an aesthetic one. Raymond Carver was a sort of mirror in which I could catch a glimpse of myself: an awkward child, a kid who liked to fish, a man who was drawn to rivers and lakes, a multiple-genre writer who began as a poet, eventually a university professor, and ultimately a man who came to understand and accept his human flaws enough to seek forgiveness and atonement.
The brilliance of Carver’s writing, and in particular his poetry, is his gift of stated or implied metaphor. The water of two rivers—one the past, one the present—that converge to carry him into the future resonates imagistically in Ohio Apertures. Carver was a very autobiographical writer, so much so, that at times much of his work can be read almost like creative nonfiction. Having read his letters and manuscript drafts in library archives, as well as interviews and biographical studies, many of his poems and stories are autobiographical. He wrote what his second wife, the poet Tess Gallagher, especially in his late poetry and in many of his autobiographical stories, calls “lyric narrative poems,” that is, poems in which the poet, or more so the poet’s imagination, become the hero of the narrative. That sounds to me much like a way to describe a lyric memoir, especially one that arcs toward a “poetic truth.” As a scholar-writer, I founded The Raymond Carver Review as a scholarly journal that would recognize Carver’s impact as a writer, and the quality and value of the body of his work. He was just 50 when he died, in his eleventh year of sobriety. During his last few years be began to write essays, prose poetry, and screen plays.
From my perspective as a writer and Carver scholar, I can see he was finding new sites, new places to stand in relationship to his subject material, new ways to grow as a writer.
Can you get us up to speed with what you’re working on now?
The past two years have been an amazing culmination of several concurrent projects. I published a book of prose poems, Orpheus & Echo, in the three-in-one book Triptych by Etruscan Press in March 2020; I finished Ohio Apertures, which was published by Cornerstone Press in March; and I’ve finished a new book of prose poems, Capital of Sorrows, that is under review. The pantry is empty, so to speak.
I’ve been re-reading some of my travel notebooks, and working on some new drafts of poems; I expect I’ll see what tendencies the poems take, looking for a pattern to occur that may shape a next book of poems. I’m re-reading an early draft of a novel that I’m returning to, looking to reshape and revise it into a new draft. It’s an historical novel and there have been some recent books that I’ve acquired, as research, so as to expand my original draft. I put the book aside because I couldn’t solve the puzzles the genre posed, but I’ve re-imagined the book and will write my way to a different solution than I did the first time around. I’ve located copies of some letters written by the character whose section is epistolary, and two books, both recent, are packed with new information I will cull for what can expand the character. And for another character, one who is complex yet relatively unknown, I’m drawing from the use of cinema and documentary, the site where I’m going to stand in, as I revise that section. Also, I’m sketching out notes for a book of long pieces of creative nonfiction, tentatively titled Mid-Century. While re-reading my travel notebooks I’ve come across several pages of questions I would have liked to have asked my father if he were still alive. How interesting it is that I’m ending this interview with an idea for a second book of creative nonfiction, based on questions addressed to my late father, like one would address in an interview.
Robert Miltner is the award-winning author of two books of prose poetry, Hotel Utopia and Orpheus & Echo, and a short story collection, And Your Bird Can Sing. A professor emeritus of English at Kent State University Stark and the Northeast Ohio MFA in Creative Writing, Miltner lives in Northeast Ohio.
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“Know that you will never fall asleep on a beach again.” That’s what I tell would-be mothers when they ask what to expect of motherhood (because the books don’t tell you the half of it). Oh, of course I tell them the good stuff, too: an enlarged heart and sense of purpose and connection with a tiny body-and-soul that needs you like water, like everything.
And grief. To mother is to grieve–even if not actively–to know that one day this little being’s light will be extinguished. And we hope and pray that it happens after our own light is long gone, but we know that it will happen. Motherhood is carrying that knowledge around with us everywhere, while stoking our kids’ lights to make them brighter. To make them last.
In the coming-of-age novel, The Remnants of Summer, debut novelist Dawn Newton plumbs the depths of grief after our 14-year-old protagonist, Iris, falls asleep on the beach while babysitting not her child but her younger brother–who drowns.
“Iris is sinking.” So begins the novel’s summary, and Newton expertly weaves water into grief and redemption throughout this coming-of-age story set in a lakeside, working-class community in the 70s. It is grief-laden, this novel, but it’s also a balm–not only because the author taps into the nostalgia of youth, but because the author taps into the resilience of youth.
My best childhood days were spent at the lake. What better reward for lake-effect snow from December through March (and sometimes April) than summer at the water’s edge? The Remnants of Summer is set not far from Detroit, Michigan, but you’ll find your lakeside town in this story, I promise. You’ll remember the bike rides and trips for ice cream, the fishing and daydreaming. You’ll be reminded of the way the sun turns the rippling lake to sparkles.
Of course there’s a flip side to the idyllic lakeside story. The lake has taken Iris’s little brother the summer before, on Iris’s watch, and now the lake doesn’t shimmer like it always did. Her relationship with this place, her home, has changed; what’s more her relationships with her parents and older sister, Liz, have changed, too. Why won’t they blame her outright for her brother’s death, already? Instead Iris blames herself, over and over, and tries to keep afloat as she works a summer job and gets together with friends–but grief puts a shadow over everything.
Meanwhile, a serial killer has nabbed and killed several children in Michigan. This development is less a plot point than atmosphere–but true-to-history-atmosphere–and not germane to the story, except that it allows for Iris to ruminate on death and guilt outside her family situation. Likewise, she considers those soldiers missing and presumed dead–a neighbor’s cousin is MIA–in the ongoing war in Vietnam. These historical points set the scene, but I admit to wondering if this quiet coming-of-age novel was about to turn into a mystery. And I admit to thinking that a plot thread along those lines, woven through the family saga, might have been a good way to raise the stakes even higher.
When a neighbor’s uncle, a man about twice her age, makes a sexual pass, Iris considers new feelings, and new questions come burbling up: Did she want the attention? To feel special? Was she attracted or scared of him, or both? I was glad for these coming-of-age questions to round out Iris’s character and rescue her from her sinking grief.
I was also glad for the ending, which doesn’t wrap things up too neatly. Anyone who has experienced grief for a lost loved one knows there’s no wrapping it up. Grief ebbs and flows, and you ride it as best you can.
I won’t soon forget Iris. And I won’t soon forget the gorgeous prose the author uses to make this summertime story feel like it was mine for a time–language, characterization, and setting the novel’s strongest elements. One of my favorite passages, describing a summer concert on the water:
“…she told Iris she and her husband lingered around the edges of the circle the boats made in the water, listening for the faint strain of the pitch pipe, then the blend of the rich voices, from bass and baritone to soprano, voices mingling with those of complete strangers from the other side of the lake, in search of the harmony that hung in the air, waiting to be sung.”
How do you define “beach read” and what’s your favorite one? Got a favorite lake? Who writes your favorite settings the best? What are you reading, this week?
Looking for more Rust Belt book reviews, author interviews, and more? Check out my categories above, and find me on my FB page and over at Twitter as @MoonRuark
*Thanks to the folks at Mindbuck Media Book Publicity for sending me a copy of the novel for review! Pre-orders are available now, if you’re interested.
My best friend in college was devoted to romance novels. While I was busy analyzing Moby Dick and Their Eyes Were Watching God for American Lit., she was deep into Harlequin Romance territory. I don’t really know if they were Harlequins–I’d only flip through one occasionally, looking for the juicy parts–but I do know they could be purchased, and cheaply, at Walmart.
Other girls headed out to parties (we did that sometimes, too), but plenty of Friday nights would find us at Walmart, hunting for my friend’s next love story near the checkout lines. I can understand(ish) the appeal of the stories. I love love. Though I’ve never been drawn to read–or even watch–what we typically think of as love stories. (Embarrassing fact: this American woman right here has yet to ingest a sugary Hallmark Christmas movie. Will meet-cute elude me again this year?)
In my MFA program in fiction, we did have to write a piece of erotica, but that’s just the juicy parts, and not necessarily a love story. We writers in the literary vein do hear, often, that our stories are depressing. They are about love, of course. But they’re often also about loss and longing, and maybe redemption provides some resolution. But literary stories usually don’t conclude with a syrupy, happily-ever-after kiss staged in a small-town gazebo where the shy but hunky townie in a flannel shirt embraces the big city girl with the sharp tongue and even sharper stilettos–in gently falling snow. Unless maybe it’s satire.
Of course, there’s much more to love stories–real and imagined–than romantic love. You remember: philía, éros, and agápe, or brotherly or sisterly love, romantic love, and unconditional love. And while we might not think of the memoir as a genre of love stories, I argue that it is just that.
I hadn’t read much memoir before starting this blog four years ago. But blogging is good training in writing (and reading) mini memoirs. And my mission to delve into the literature of my native Rust Belt place led me to more memoirs than I could count (or read or review, but I try!).
They are different, all the memoirs I’ve discussed here at the blog, but each and every one is a love story:
Oh, hey, why not start with the controversial guy? I was so confounded by Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (and adapted to film recently, to, shall we say, mixed reviews?) I noted right here, in the early-blog days, that I read it, but I didn’t review it. I’m sure on a second pass, I would find what I found on the first read: in a failed attempt to understand the people (and not just demographic statistics) of his native place, J.D. Vance fell in love with himself in this memoir, and not in a self-actualizing, come-to-Jesus kind of way; but in a self-aggrandizing, come-to-J.D. kind of way.
In Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood (no relation, except as inspiration for my blog name!), Paul Hertneky’s stories of childhood and young adulthood in steel-country Pennsylvania give the reader a glimpse into “America’s blue-collar heart.” In delving into his personal past, the memoirist allows us to explore the roots of the author and the roots of the Rust Belt’s industrial rise and fall–and fall in love with a storied American past.
Amy Jo Burns’ Cinderland is a coming of age memoir in which the memoirist invites the reader into a burning secret of her past, childhood abuse that caused her pain and grief. In her essays, too, the author delves into the false notion of the female as “a body for consumption.” As I’ve come to know Amy Jo, more, through her writing and online conversation–I see her work in memoir as getting to the burning heart of self-love as first love. (And if you haven’t read Amy Jo’s novel, Shiner, one of my favorite books of the year, what are you waiting for?)
In Sonja Livingston’s memoirs and essays, the author lets us in on her journey of the spirit. It comes down to faith–not doctrinal, but “raw” faith, the faith that draws us forward from the heart into the unknown. In Ghostbread, the author lovingly revisits her childhood, growing up in poverty in Rochester, New York. In The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, she undergoes an external journey to find the missing statue of the Virgin Mary from her childhood parish; at the same time, she looks inward, as many of us (try to) do at this time of year, especially. The love of the journey is palpable–sensual and real–in all this writer’s works.
Which brings me to my current read. Eliese Colette Goldbach’s Rust is a memoir of an unlikely Cleveland steelworker, who comes to reclaim the hometown she’d always meant to leave behind. It’s also a memoir exploring the female body politic–writ large on society and small on one woman, struggling to find hope. I won’t spoil it, because I’m hoping Eliese will talk with us here at the blog. But this memoir is a love story if I’ve ever read one.
So, tell me, what’s your favorite love story? What’s your favorite memoir? Do you write memoir, yourself? Share in the comments. I love to get a good discussion going!
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Warning: I am full-on author-crushing right now. The author: Tove Jansson (1914-2001), Finland’s most famous writer-illustrator, who introduced the world to the Moomins–a family of peace-loving trolls brought to life in illustrated children’s books–and also wrote some really fantastic literature for adults.
In light of the first feature film about Jansson releasing next month, I’ve recently devoted much of my reading time to her novel, The Summer Book, and her short stories. All capture Finland from the inside–in a way no travelogue ever could. Thank goodness for translations (and Thomas Teal, in particular, who translated much of Jansson’s work into English). Since I don’t read Swedish–Jansson was born into Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority–or Finnish. I’ve got enough on my plate trying to capture moments in Finland’s history in my novel-in-progress, set in part in this Nordic place–at once beautiful and dangerous, light and dark, like the best photograph, painting, or story. I’m looking for and finding much inspiration in Jansson’s work.
Picture London, Paris, or New York. Got it? Now picture Iowa farm country. How about Main Street USA? Easily imaginable places all, even in fiction. Right? Well, you can have them. I’m here to laud the lesser-known and in-between places in books, the fringes, places where the present hasn’t caught up to a promising past, where things are undefined, even messy—and the characters are gritty, trying to make a place their own. I’m here for the settings that remain open to interpretation, invention, and story.
Take Margo Orlando Littell’s recent novel from University of New Orleans Press, for instance. The Distance from Four Points is set in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, murky territory straddling the Rust Belt and Appalachia. Never heard of it? All the better stage for the author to play out that age-old question:
Can you really go home again?
Quick summary: “Soon after her husband’s tragic death, Robin Besher makes a startling discovery: He had recklessly blown through their entire savings on decrepit rentals in Four Points, the Appalachian town Robin grew up in. Forced to return after decades, Robin and her daughter, Haley, set out to renovate the properties as quickly as possible—before anyone exposes Robin’s secret past as a teenage prostitute. Disaster strikes when Haley befriends a troubled teen mother, hurling Robin back into a past she’d worked so hard to escape. Robin must reshape her idea of home or risk repeating her greatest mistakes.”
In Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, the poet says, “If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place.”
By this definition, Margo Orlando Littell is a poet. For me, it’s the setting of Four Points, a fictionalized version of the author’s own hometown, that makes the novel shine. Forty-something MC Robin’s hometown appears to her to be a “poor, indifferent place.” This setting is a lot like the places that dot the Pennsylvania landscape that separates my home in Maryland and my childhood home in Ohio’s Rust Belt, places where invariably my car radio loses NPR’s signal and tunes in only country music. Where tunnels through the mountains, tiled like giant bathrooms, are the highlight of the trip. Where mock-alpine ski resorts attempt to lure passersby off the Pennsylvania turnpike. I’ve happily sped through these places seeking finer points, the reinvented and cosmopolitan Pittsburgh, for one.
The author paints a picture of Four Points from Robin’s perspective: “It was coal country, or used to be, and it wasn’t always terrible. Long before she was born, businessmen made millions here, gaining wealth from the coke ovens in the foothills. Now the crumbling mansions…were barely audible echoes of the town’s better years.” This is a place many leave, but enough stay for unemployment to be high; a place old industry forgot and new-wave industry, like medicine, higher education, and tech, haven’t yet found.
Still, a place like this, steeped in the glories of a crumbling past, isn’t past—but is fully present—to the residents eking out a living there, today. And, upon her return to Four Points, this is a reality Robin has to face, and quick.
The novel starts off rather breathlessly, and we’re thrust into Robin’s predicament. Her husband died and left her with nothing to keep her and her daughter’s heads above water—except some pretty cruddy rentals in her hometown. A hometown she had tried her best to forget, living in a monied Pittsburgh-area enclave, where she’d remade herself—or fooled herself into thinking she had. A “decadence,” of forgetting where she came from and what she did to survive, the author calls it, of forgetting the “familiar equation” of “sex plus money.” This isn’t uncharted territory for women’s fiction—a salacious past comes to haunt the MC’s present—but the author handles it well.
The details of land-lording, re-making this human-built landscape with her smarts and own two hands, raises this bookclub novel to a higher level. Robin, who only recently wouldn’t be caught without her “Va-Va Vino” nail polish, takes to ripping up ruined linoleum in her tenants’ places with those nails, breaking them to the quick. This kind of work, needed to sustain herself and her daughter, does a lot to renew Robin’s sense of self, even in grief. Work, as it often does, has a way of teaching characters (and, by extension, us readers) about their capacity for living: “Tonight, the paint would dry, and in the morning the apartment would be whole. Not new, not beautiful, but ready to live in.”
The author exhibits a local’s keen sense of the distinct sights, sounds, and tastes of this place, where Sheetz and Walmart serve as modern beacons in the wintry gloom. But this is also the kind of place where communities still come out for parades on feast days and fill the same ethnic church pews their grandparents did; at home, old recipes, like Eastern European Halushki, are still passed down to the next generation. Maybe it is in such in-between times, teetering between ages—when will these hills experience their next Gilded age?—when we cling to the traditional foods that comfort, the language (all the “Yinzes!”) shared. Maybe it’s in these moments that we find grace.
I would have liked a bit more rumination in these pages on the grace found in this novel’s place. We get a brief mention of it, and there are fleeting prayers for Robin, who won’t budge from the necessity of sending her daughter to Catholic school, even when money is terribly scarce.
That touch of grace and Robin’s role as landlord reminded me of the biblical parable of the wicked tenants (Robin does have one or two), but more loosely about the need to be worthy “tenants” in this life leased to us here, in the earthly communities we call home. Will Robin turn her back again on her home, on a hard-won livelihood “cleaved to boilers and shingles, sewage stacks and electric grids.” Or, will she waste her gifts, trying to run away from herself again?
I’ll let you read to find out.
In a bit of life imitating art, the author also tried her hand at being a landlord in her hometown during the course of writing this book, and her expertise shows in her prose. You can read about that backstory and everything else related to The Distance from Four Points at her website: margoorlandolittell.com
Paris in springtime? Let’s face it: none of us is flying anytime soon. So, how about Four Points at the turning of a season—from the pages of this engrossing novel:
Robin left Four Points at five, the magical hour when the light over the mountains turned fiery and lit every branch on the maple-blanketed hills. The world was wet and weary, winter pulsing deep as blood, but in the pink sky and dripping ice from the bridges, she sensed spring. It really would come, softening those bristly mountains and coloring the sooty landscape of steel and coal. Another winter was breathing to a close…
From Margo Orlando Littell’s The Distance From Four Points
Anyone from such a place will tell you that harsh winters are worth it for the release of spring that follows—springs worth a whole book, and many more trips home.
Margo Orlando Littell grew up in a coal-mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania. Her first novel, Each Vagabond by Name, won the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize and an IPPY Awards Gold Medal for Mid-Atlantic Fiction. She lives in New Jersey with her family.
Note: I received an electric copy of this book from the author’s publicist, in the hopes I would enjoy it, which I did. The book’s summary and the author’s bio, along with all the quotes, are from the book. The author was kind enough to supply photos (along with their captions) from her hometown.
Like what you read? Check out my categories above, with author and photographer interviews, essays, stories, book reviews, writing advice, and more. What are you reading and writing this week?
What doesn’t bite? A surprise gift. One of my favorite surprise gifts I received this past Christmas was a book (shocker, right?): Cleveland Then and Now by Laura DeMarco, with Now photography by Karl Mondon.
The large-format book celebrates the storied history and vibrant present of my home city of Cleveland. (Granted, I grew up in Cleveland’s hinterlands, but Cleveland–and especially its Playhouse Square, where I danced with the School of the Cleveland Ballet–has my whole heart.) Having left home at 19, I now have lived longer away from Ohio (and below the Mason Dixon, God forbid) than in Ohio. Still, I consider it home.
Much of my Christmas afternoon was spent poring over the landmarks in this book. There’s Cleveland’s most beautiful building, the historic Cleveland Arcade (pictured below), where my dad worked for a time; hippie haven Hessler Road, where my mom lived when in college; Little Italy, where my parents married at Holy Rosary Church; the Cleveland Museum of Art; Playhouse Square, the largest center of performing arts between New York and Chicago; the Streamline Moderne Greyhound station, which I rolled in and out of on trips home from college in Virginia; and much more.
The book’s author: arts and culture reporter and editor for the Plain Dealer–Cleveland’s newspaper of record–a reporter who specialized in local history and lost landmarks in the city. As many newspapers have, my hometown paper has seen its share of layoffs in recent times. Then, just last month, the news about more layoffs started coming fast and furious into my Twitter feed. Or more aptly put in this article with all the ins and outs: it was a “gutting” of a newsroom and a sure blow to journalism and journalists the Northeast Ohio community relies on. When remaining journalists were faced with losing their beats and told they would no longer be able to cover the city, a round of resignations yesterday included that of DeMarco.
Since the coronavirus reared its ugly, spiked head, journalists, writers, and bloggers have found ways of making sense of pandemic-havoc by telling the stories of our communities. While my platform is small, my community, my “beat,” during this isolation, is my family. And so I’ve been using these daily prompts to tell our stories: there’s Isolation Lent; Reviled Remote School; Close-Proximity Parenting (if my kids say to me, “OK, Boomer,” one more time, I might lose it); Extended Family Worries, and all the rest.
I’m keeping it together as best as this (ahem) Generation X-er can, which, according to DeMarco, might be pretty OK. In a piece she wrote last month, she notes that our Reality Bites generation is getting this isolation thing right: “While millennials and Gen Z kept partying and going to the beach, and boomers who didn’t want to recognize they are not so young anymore kept brunching, Gen X stood up and took action — and stayed in.” In this fun piece, she highlights the voices of several local Gen X-ers. The story brought to mind my own time in Cleveland with my best Gen-X girlfriends…dressed like we’d shopped at a Depeche Mode garage sale…drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes…watching the skaters outside Arabica on Coventry…acting all moody, sorta like isolating even when not alone.
Yeah, today’s reality–and it’s far-reaching impacts on our society–bites, and my heart goes out to all who are suffering from job loss and worse. What can we do? It is a very small thing, but today I’ll tell it like it is and hope for a better tomorrow. I hope you’ll join me.
As a June baby, I never gave much credence to astrological signs or birth stones, for that matter. (I mean, pearl, alexandrite, or moonstone. Really?) But back to signs: I’m a Gemini, the twin sign, and the “liveliest” of the air signs, whatever that means. I share this honor with dead Gems like Marilyn Monroe and live ones like Kanye West. So, I’m in complicated company.
Anyhow, this twin married another one just about 16 years ago. Six years later, we twinned Geminis had a set of actual twin babies. But even before they were born, I prepared myself to be a twin-mom. It’s a whole thing. I read (as I’m wont to do) the dos and don’t of twin-parenting, and I found that much of the emotional-care advice falls into two buckets.
Do treat your twins like two individual people and not a BOGO deal
Don’t fall into the trap of making twins into neat polar opposites for shock value or as a handy literary trope.
You know, as in good twin-bad twin, smart twin-dumb twin, funny twin-serious twin. It’s not only cruel but, in the case of good characterization (since this is a writing blog), just plain lazy.
So, I’m on the lookout for nuanced twin tales. Tell me what you’ve got in the way of literary fiction for adults and maybe YA, too, that features twins. I’m curious (and kinda self-quarantined, so I’ve got a little time).
I’m also interested in the way two characters who are not twins can be “twinned” in stories. Which brings me, a bit late (but really, we’re all self-distancing, so what else do you have to do?) to my latest read: Domenico Starnone’s novel, Trick, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri. (It’s true, she’s amazing in Italian, too.)
A wonderful, surprising, and layered novel, Trick deserves an in-depth discussion–of setting, plot, inspiration, and characters. (In order, that’s Naples, Italy…grouchy grandfather babysits precocious grandson for a few days…a Henry James ghost story, card games, and more…and the aforementioned grandfather and grandson.)
Though separated by a 70 year gap in age, the grandfather and his grandson are twinned by Starnone, who breaks all the rules of twin-parenting while creating characters that are so real-feeling I half expected them to pinch me from the pages of my book. Indeed, Starnone treats the grandfather and grandson as a unit–in the Naples apartment, on the streets, and even in the bathroom where they take a pee together. (Never have I found a bathroom scene so endearing!) In conjoining these two disparate humans, the reader realizes how similar they are. (How similar we all are!)
Likewise, by showing the characters as dichotomies–old versus young, fragile versus agile, learned versus unlearned–Starnone illustrates how much we humans have in common. And this is true not only at the beginning and end of life (when frequent trips to the bathroom are necessary) but throughout the spectrum of our human existence on Earth. We all laugh, cry, yearn for love, endure pain, seek pleasure and distraction, and will die.
Starnone twins, or adds layers to, his characters using ghostly images–that pop up in the drawings the illustrator-grandfather makes and also in the older man’s imagination. The grandfather is also further layered by his memories of his dead wife, which cling to him–specifically his wife’s criticism. As a husband, he was distracted by his art, so much so that it made him at times into a “stranger,” a “tenebrous version of myself that had frightened her.” Perhaps he has always been someone with multiple versions of himself. As a child in Naples, “numerous me’s were in bud since early adolescence and yearned to assert themselves…”
Don’t we all have numerous me’s? It’s a trait sometimes foisted upon us Geminis, who are sometimes called two-faced. But shouldn’t we be many-faced–whether we were born in June, born singletons, or born twins? Isn’t this the kind of multifaceted characterization, which we readers and writers hope for? Why would we want life to be so much simpler, flatter?
Toward the end of the novel, Trick, the grandfather talks of clones of oneself, and the moment “you repel yourself.” That’s some trick, but the whole novel can be seen this way–as a sleight of hand, a trick of the eye.
Then there’s the “I” of youth, our youngest self. “How we love–all of us–our chatty little imp,” the grandfather muses. Which brings me to the climax of the novel. I won’t give away any spoilers here. But it happens that the grandfather and grandson are on the opposite sides of a glass door–and so ensues in the glass reflections a twin twinning. And everything is flip-flopped, when the “I” of youth saves the “I” of maturity–or does it?
“I’d wanted to keep the horror,” the grandfather thinks, “that spread through the house, through the street, on the face of the earth, at a distance… Instead it stretched, it split at the seams, it suffered, breaking into shards.” What image–of ourselves or another, a child or an adult, hasn’t suffered such a split? We are all many more than one thing. More than one reflection, one opposite, one twin.
Do you abide by astrological signs? Do you know any twins? Give me your favorite set of twins from popular culture. What are you reading and writing to endure this period of self-distancing?
Italian author Elena Ferrante has had quite the effect on the American literary community–with her Neapolitan quartet of novels starting with My Brilliant Friend especially. Much of the more recent response (My Brilliant Friend was published in English in 2012) is likely due to this New York Times article: “The Ferrante Effect: In Italy, Women Writers are Ascendant.” And then there are the spoofs, including this one in McSweeney’sInternet Tendency called, simply, “I am Elena Ferrante,” that confirm Ferrante (a pen name, her real identity a mystery) has captured the American imagination.
She has captured this American’s imagination, anyway. Selfishly, I love the idea of women writers being ascendant anywhere, especially in a patriarchal culture dominated by, well, men–in literature and at home, in the neighborhood, at church…
Not all women readers have been as impressed by Ferrante as I have been, albeit only one novel into the quartet. A quick scan of Goodreads reviews of My Brilliant Friend, which follows the childhood and adolescent friendship between Lila and Lenú–sometimes fond, sometimes rivaling, always close–set against the backdrop of a poor neighborhood in post-war Naples reveals some dissent. “Why are the kids always throwing stones at each other?” one confounded reader asks.
Having studied up a bit on Italy between the wars for my own writing, it’s the stone-throwing, writ large–over the girls’ neighborhood, over their city, and over their country–that is most interesting to me. Often it’s stone-throwing in lieu of seizing any real, lasting power. (No real spoilers in this post–if you’ve read the summary.)
Oddly, some of the moments that describe the history of violence in this place are more lyrical than the moments devoted to friendship:
So she gave concrete motives, ordinary faces to the air of abstract apprehension that as children we had breathed in the neighborhood. Fascism, Nazism, the war, the Allies, the monarchy, the republic–she turned them into streets, houses, faces…
Isn’t this act of turning formless fear into places and characters just what a good writer does? So too do Ferrante’s characters expose this strange place to us through the everyday, the neighborhood. Leaving one of the girls to believe the other “…enclosed me in a terrible world that left no escape.”
The domestic, the old hearth-and-home, offers no respite from the violence, but only offers a different kind of violence. The neighborhood in this novel produces rival gangs, even agents of the Camorra (Neapolitan Mafia). Even inside Lina and Lenú’s homes there is violence–between husbands and wives, parents and children, mothers and daughters. No one is safe; certainly no one is ascending anywhere.
Perhaps the most startling admission in the (at least somewhat autobiographical) novel:
I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence.
How to rise above it all? How to escape the cycle of violence and poverty? This is Italy. So, God? No, Lenú ranks faith wholly inadequate to the task of pulling anyone out of her neighborhood, in a scathing derision of the Catholic Church–made all the more scathing as it’s delivered by a teenage girl:
[I] said that the human condition was so obviously exposed to the blind fury of chance that to trust in a God, a Jesus, the Holy Spirit–this last a completely superfluous entity, it was there only to make up a trinity, notoriously nobler than the mere binomial father-son–was the same thing as collecting trading cards while the city burns in the fires of hell.
Of course, this speech of Lenú is devastating–if also a bit humorous. We faithful, and we writers, alike, love a trinity, don’t we? But what a powerful image, those trading cards–reminiscent of the prayer and saint cards we Catholics receive at funerals and other ritualistic events. Were I to write about my own childhood and adolescence adhering to the rites of the Roman Catholic Church, there wouldn’t be much grasping at God. Rituals and ceremony, yes. What do I remember of my first communion in second grade? The white dress and veil I wore–the last veil I wore, not carrying on that particular tradition at my wedding, when I wore a tea-length dress to show off my legs.
If not God, where then can these adolescent girls, Lila and Lenú, turn to ascend from this violence they call home? Like all young people they dream of riches and fame–that would result, in their fantasies, from publishing a book “like Little Women…” But that dream fades as the girls’ intellectual and feminine powers grow. Lenú goes to high school, excels in languages, history, and even religion, mentored by a female teacher, a Communist distrusted by Lenú’s very-traditional mother. Lila turns her attention to a young man as savior. “He’s rich,” she says to her friend. “Also nice, also good.” Lenú considers those two adjectives as providing the “final blow to the shrine of childish fantasies.”
“Blow” such a telling action there–a violent end to a kind of shrine (a place of faith–even if fanciful). One chapter of life ends. The friends’ lives have diverged, a bit violently, one down the path of marriage and family, the other down the path of education:
Was it not true, then, that school was my personal wealth, now far from her influence?
Lenú weeps at this realization of the separation between the friends who have known each other, always.
This is a book that captures the violence of a time and place as it captures a female friendship, the portrayal of which–in my mind–makes these characters ascend (like their creator, Ferrante, a female writer in Italy) from their hurtful home. At least, I hope they do. There is more to come.
I can’t wait to see where Lina and Lenú go next.
Have you read any Elena Ferrante? Have you read My Brilliant Friend and the rest of the quartet? (No spoilers!) What did you think?
Have you known any of your current friends since early childhood? How have you traveled the same paths in life? How have your paths diverged?
Looking for a review? See my categories above for book reviews, author interviews, and more. And find me on Goodreads, where I try to at least rank what I’ve read. Let’s be friends there!
When I was on bed-rest, hugely pregnant with my twin boys, I did what I do in any anxiety-producing situation, especially one that would have me lying on my side for three months: I read. In addition to the care-and-feeding-of-babies books, I read about the raising of boys into men, the emotional aspects and the pitfalls to avoid.
In my reading, I found prevalent boy-myths to steer clear of (in life, not in writing–myths are fun there, but more on that in a bit). Two common ones: boy as animal (he simply can’t be good); and boy as prince (he can do no wrong, no matter how he tries).
Once I delivered my boys into the world, I became uber-focused not on their boyhood but on their infant hood–a precarious time made more precarious by sleep deprivation (mine, not theirs). “Your job is to keep them alive,” the pediatrician said. (If that sounds dire or needlessly heartless, I’ve since learned this is something pediatricians regularly say to moms of twins.) For me, nursing day and night, there was no time or energy for thinking ahead to boyhood–or mythologizing or otherwise romanticizing it in any way.
Amid the mental and physical haze of exhaustion, I did fall prey to infant-mom advertising: you know, the stuff of soft lighting illuminating mother placidly cradling baby in her arms–that’s one baby, not two. And so much gazing–lovingly–into each other’s bright eyes. Kenny G might have been playing his muzak as soundtrack to the ad–trying its best to sell me bottles, bjorns, fancy diapers, or other stuff I wasn’t buying.
What I was buying, however, (and internalizing like the marketing writer I am by day) was that romantic image presented. I was buying that hook, line, and sinker. Yet, I remember a turn of phrase that left me feeling heartless and creeped out all at once: fall in love with your baby boy.
Of course, myths abound in culture and literature through the ages that feature a mother falling in love with her son: not Pampers-love, but romantic–even erotic–love.