Skip to content

On the Place I Am From

[The following speech on history and the place I am from was delivered in acceptance of the 2007 Boston Globe/Horn Book Award in Fiction for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party.]

I would like to speak of reading and of the town where I grew up; I would like to speak of Stow, Massachusetts, some forty miles from here, as it was in the glorious year 1976.

In that Bicentennial year, our town was still rural, and in the center stood the white-steepled church and the Richardsonian library, which was brick and quaintly turreted. Down the road our town had, of course, its haunted house, its Puritan graves, its ice-cream stand, and its bad girl. It had its pumpkins and its squash. At crossroads marked with stone in Stow, in Sudbury, in Concord, in Acton, stood crumbling nineteenth-century houses in which lived crumbling nineteenth-century couples, born in the reign of Queen Victoria, and now, in the reign of disco, clipping flowers sweetly about the green. Several of the farms were farms, and through the woods ran stone walls behind which one might crouch, present, and fire. The autumn air smelled of Concord grapes and windfall apples turned to vinegar. There were great stretches of woodland. From the lake, one could walk for several hours through forest and emerge in the town center, behind the Buick salesman. I recall that the grocery store, in that time, was called The Purity Supreme, and as we walked its aisles, we heard voices in the air that spoke of Joy, of Cheer, of Bounty.

I believed in a land of great expanse that had an untameable wilderness at its heart. Towns were refuges from the wild. Ours was a nation of contrasts, from the brownstones of the cities to the shacks of mountain villages, from the barnyards of the northeast to the barrios of the southwest. It was a nation where difference was celebrated, where siding varied from brick to stucco, where local slang was forged in parking lots, and where one man’s po’ boy was another man’s hero.

I learned the particular morphology of the American town through reading. I read Homer Price and Dandelion Wine, The Great Brain and The Mad Scientists’ Club, and from such books as these, I learned to parse Americana. I learned to feel myself part of a tradition of clapboard, phone pole, and loneliness on dirt roads. If I had not read of Centerburg, Ohio, I could not a few years later have been so haunted by Winesburg, Ohio, or Spoon River, or Yoknapatawpha County, or Wilder’s “Our Town.”

And I could not have understood my town. A town, if its associations are severed, is nothing but an expanse of herbage and geometrical solids. It is only through a long accretion of story and explanation that it begins to yield up its shape, the canon of its elements. Every nation, every people has its own vocabulary of community. We learn a nationalized language of association and cliché. We have seen movies; we have seen calendars; we have read picture books; so when we say farm, we do not think neutrally of a unit of agricultural production, but of a red barn, a white house, and an evening sky spread behind them like unfurled Romaine.

In the same way, I was taught to recognize the elements of the New England town all around me. In the year 1976, the porch of one of our town’s Victorian houses was used for a television commercial by Entenmann’s, or perhaps it was Pepperidge Farms – I can’t recall which, but they would not have used us if we hadn’t had that small-town, horse and buggy, rural snack-cake atmosphere. This, strangely, was when we realized we were absolutely the real thing: when the grand houses of our mill-village first appeared as a simulation on TV, with a grandfather giving some other generation danish or snickerdoodles in a stay-fresh box. The colors of the trees and the grass were golden and luminous. I did not feel that the American town was a thing of the past – it seemed vividly alive, all around me. My heart swelled with pride.

If I sound ironic, it is only because this is these are the places I loved more than any other places in the world, and now they are disappearing.

Of course, nostalgia is a somewhat fatuous emotion. My parents may long for Clove gum, I may long for Bubblicious, but really, it is not worth imposing old gum on new incisors. Leave it on the underside of the desk. What we’re really longing for is not the gum itself, but the youth of the jaws that chewed it.

There is a similar danger in a lament for the passing of the American town, regionalism, and provincialism, which is also a lament for the disappearance of polio and the lynch mob.

Yet, hazy nostalgia aside, I look about me, and see that American towns are in fact changing at an unprecedented rate, and that this loss of community – both with the living and with the dead – will have deep and difficult psychological and social impacts. This disappearance of the historical, the known town, is not simply the cantankerous illusion of the middle-aged. It is statistical.

Since 1960, the world’s human population has more than doubled. Let us lay aside the global implications of this terrifying acceleration, its impact on us as an animal species, and think only about how this population growth has already altered American patterns of settlement.

In this state, about forty-four acres of woodland are razed for development every day. Nationally, each day sees the leveling of some 6,000 acres of woodland, farm, and wetland. American farmland alone is cleared for building at a rate of two acres per minute. And the American farm which remains is often not the homestead and hoedown we envision, in an age of centralization, corporatization, genetic modification, national distribution, and dis-economies of scale. The physical nature of our landscape has changed irrevocably.

The issue is not simply the raw growth of the American population. While the American birth-rate is lower than many other nations’, this is offset by our level of consumption and construction. We constitute 4.5% of the human population, but use about 25% of all that our species produces globally. This hungry sense of material entitlement, too, determines the architectural shape of the American town: Since the glorious year 1976, when I scrambled through the orchards of Stow, the average new American home has grown by 55%. Since the beginning of this millennium, the number of American families owning second homes has increased by 50%. I would buy one myself, if I weren’t an author of children’s books.

If Stow’s exurban woodland seemed Edenic to me when I was eight, it was not merely because I was young and easily seduced by chickadees. I happened to be born at a moment between economies. Stow’s agricultural economy had received a blow in the middle of the twentieth century, when the refrigerated railroad car made possible the national distribution of foodstuffs – apples from Washington State, in particular. By the time of my earliest memories, much of Stow’s farmland had turned to woodland over a quarter century of neglect. The town was more heavily wooded in the year 1976 than it had been for the two hundred years before. It was indeed an idyllic moment in the history of my town – farm and forest, small suburb and center.

Those of us who live near where we grew up often have these moments of double-take, as scraps of land are in-filled around old houses, as dark woods that seemed eternal prove to be mired in historical process, disappearing overnight to make way for rows of houses colored sweet as Necco wafers. The past seems to vanish, what we know is erased, and there is sand in the eye of memory, until it winces shut.

This seems a small thing – the sniffling of the antiquarian – until we recognize that the entire morphology of the American town is actually shifting fundamentally – it has already fundamentally shifted without us noticing. We no longer live in towns in which a main street with shops and apartments is surrounded by variegated pockets of neighborhood, suburb, farm, and forest. We no longer may know of the passage from one town to the next by the fact that things get thin, then thick again.

There is a new morphology to the American town, though the myth-ology remains the same. With the wide-spread installation of the suburban, car-oriented model of civic planning, stores congregate in malls at the edges of towns. The main street dies, or, in a few lucky instances, becomes a boutique relic of a hammy past. Zoning laws enacted since the Second World War – devised with the laudable intention of rationalizing communities and introducing greater efficiencies – now demand that the functions of a town be split up geographically: business, residential, retail. Houses are built in “pods,” unified by design and stratified by cost – and therefore, social class. Due to the brutal infrastructure expenses of suburban planning and the particular structure of real estate taxation, those who have lived in a town for a long time – retirees especially, and a town’s blue-collar inhabitants – often find it impossible to stay in the houses and apartments they have long called theirs. They move out. Thus, as the town’s geographical history disappears, so is its architectural quiddity subsumed, and its traditional population swamped and displaced.

All over this nation, towns now are not a place, but a non-place, a universal, a locus of shuttling. No one knows their lore; their history is invisible. The average American moves once every six years. If there is a feeling that change is vertiginously rapid, that is due to the fact that it actually is. There is nothing wrong with change – but this amounts to erasure. Historically, individual regions have enjoyed or suffered changes equal to what we undergo, but never in the written history of our race has every quadrant of the globe sustained such continued shocks and reorganization. We literally do not know what we are. Little surprise that our children look solely to the future, to the marvelous expansion of product lines that surely shall follow, the technologies that shall soon be available. We are a society whose sense of the past runs only as deep as the cheap marble tiles lain down in our desolate million-dollar foyers, a thin veneer ready to buckle and hardly grouted.

We must stop telling ourselves that everything is as it was. We know the vernacular of Americana so well that we too easily read it in shorthand. A doormat depicting a mill-village does not turn our 90’s subdivision into a town of old. Disney’s new film logo, in which Cinderella’s Gothic castle stands amidst an imagined landscape of quaint American hamlets and river-boats – Hannibal, Missouri, crossing the Alps – does not remind us of American community, but supplants its reality. Our chests may swell as we think of the breadth of our land – from the mountains to the prairies, to the oceans, white with foam – but the mountains have been condo-ized, only three percent of the American prairies actually survive at this point, and as for the oceans, the Atlantic is almost fished out and the Pacific is white with a becalmed gyre of garbage twice the size of Texas, in which the density of particulate plastic is roughly six times that of plankton.  In one sense, America has to stop telling itself stories.

We cannot give to our children the world we would wish them to have. I cannot take my little cousins to the town of Stow in the glorious year 1976 – the forests, the farm stands, the haunted ranch house.

But in another sense, storytelling is vital right now. It is our duty and our privilege as writers for children and as educators of children to present some kind of continuity, some myth of community. I wish to pass these things on, in the way that they were passed on to me by Ray Bradbury, or Katherine Patterson, or Laurence Yep, or Daniel Pinkwater.

I wish our literature to be that space of play between the houses, between the subdivisions. Children have always made the interstices their own – the unused places – the attic and the basement – the vacant lot – the odd copse – the mini-mart parking lot – the field left to grow into forest. I hope that our books can become the kids’ own place, filled with their own special junk wrested from the ruins, a place neglected by adults, a site luxuriant with growth, where with each return, there is something new and glistening to be found, something surprising and delightful to be forgotten.

And of course, I wish to restore history to them. I wish to make it theirs, and at the same time, to say that the past will never belong to any of us. I write of the places I love – of Boston, of Stow – not to gussy up a past now rotting, but to deliver these communities with all their lineaments of age and sorrow and hazy delight to a new generation. I wish to say, Here is what we have been. Now decide what you shall be. I wish to say, I write to you at the end of the world that was known, and the beginning of a new and unknown one. I wish to say, I give you the thing that was dearest to me – this town, these people. I don’t know that you can use it. I’m not sure it’s of any worth. But I do not know of any greater way I can show my love than to give you the thing I have loved most.

When I was a child, I believed that Heaven should be like an American town. I was a very small Edward Hicks in tiny bell-bottoms. No one would have any differences, and my art teacher would have projects for everyone, and Officer S—- would sit on a folding chair, handing Doritos to the squirrels. The school band would play “Hail to the Chief” for the Paschal Lamb, and the mailman would sit down with the dentist, like a row of Fischer-Price people. As our parents exchanged beers, the first elastic pops and socks of the fireworks would reach us from the green, and the light of the grill would reflect off the tombs and obelisks around us as the first stars came out above the dim bluffs of white pine. We would all come together to tell our stories, to finally understand what had happened in the other houses; and as eternal night fell, we would play Frisbee in the sweet-mowed mounds, and at last – at last – we would come to an understanding.