I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s about halfway between Hutchinson and Nickerson, Kansas, in a half Cape Cod house built by two brothers in 1929 for their country home. The brothers, lifelong bachelors, had carved out five acres of farmland to go with the house. We - Mother, Daddy, two older sisters, me, and our younger brother - were surrounded on all sides by fields, mostly grain crops, dotted with the occasional barn, outbuilding, livestock operation, and prairie gothic farmhouse. Our neighbors - farmers on tractors - in turn plowed, disced, springtoothed, planted, fertilized, harvested, and burned stubble, season after season, year after year.
A dirt road went by our house, and our address was RFD 3, just like the families living around us for miles and miles. Mail was delivered according to the name painted on your mailbox.
Daddy had a white-collar job in town, and Mother worked at home. She wanted our house to look like a house in a magazine about beautiful houses, and it did.
When I was in my late twenties I told a social worker that my childhood had been pure bliss, and in a way that was true. For one thing, as a child I loved dirt. I would lie on my back in a plowed field, dust billowing all around me, and I would gaze at the sky and be moved to tears, it was so beautiful and everything smelled so good, and the dirt on the backs of my arms and legs felt pillowy and real in a way that made me believe I would live forever. We kids raised fat lambs and chickens for 4-H projects. Mother always planted a big garden, and in the July and August heat we canned green beans and made sweet bread-and-butter pickles and spicy-sweet lime pickles. Mother had strawberry and asparagus beds. I remember the year she made ketchup,
which none of us would eat, and apple butter, which I used to sneak out of the jar using my index finger. (The same with unsweetened Kool-Aid powder. It seemed as if my pointer finger was always purple.)
If you’re in the market for Midwest nostalgia - and I hope you are - I’ve got a million of ’em.
But truth to tell, it wasn’t pure bliss.
I say I grew up there, but I was nine when we moved in, after three years away from Kansas - a year in Michigan, and the remainder in Indianapolis, Indiana, a city of close to half a million people then. I left a bustling, crowded city school in the middle of third grade and started the second semester in a crumbling 1920s story-and-a-half three-room brick schoolhouse down the road from our house. There were three or four kids in third grade, maybe thirty-five in the whole school.
You might say I experienced culture shock: even though we all lived on the wrong side of the flood dike, my family weren’t farmers. Farm kids don’t make dust angels. They live in dirt, breathe it, eat it. They don’t gaze at clouds in rapture. They look for thunderheads, which might portend hail, which can wipe out your whole wheat crop in ten minutes.
My family, on the other hand, lived on a place that was, as the saying went, too big to mow and too small to plow. That dynamic tension - that feeling of having a foot in two worlds and truly belonging to neither - was the deep-down story of my childhood. Like many writers as children, I lived in my head. I was brainy, and I thought about things. A lot.
I never for one second imagined, though, that the difficulty of reconciling the divide between city and country ways would play out - writ large - in the nation, as it is now.
I’m working on a new novel in which the main character feels riven, too. Although she’s a misfit like me, the reasons for her pain are less about place and more about psychology. Still, her feelings aren’t far from what I felt. She’s in her twenties, though, and not pushing seventy as I am, and she’s in the throes of her angst when a tragedy occurs that would have broken her (as it does others) even had she been in good shape emotionally. I hope she doesn’t turn her face to the wall and give up on life.
I say, “I hope.” You may wonder, isn’t that up to me? I like to think so, but my characters have a way of striking off on their own into places I hadn’t planned. So stay tuned.
I’m taking a trip to Kansas after my debut novel, All The Forgivenesses, comes out at the end of August. No doubt I’ll drive by the folks’ place, which we sold years ago after they died. The road is blacktopped now, has been for years, and it has a name: 56th Street. The house even has a house number. I used to know it, but I’ve forgotten it. No matter. I know all the landmarks.
If you’re in the neighborhood, do come to my book event at Bluebird Books in Hutchinson, September 7 at 1 pm. Or if you’re in Oregon, I’ll be at Grass Roots Books, October 8, at 7 pm, talking with Wayne Harrison. Come on by - I’d love to meet you.