Back when I read Thomas Wolfe’s novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, I was young. I thought Wolfe was a little hard on his character, George, who writes a book about his hometown only to be barraged by hatred from people in his town for misrepresenting, albeit innocently, their community. The community George remembered wasn’t reality. Surely, I thought, nothing about home can change that much. Well, I just spent a week on vacation with my family in northeastern Oklahoma. And guess what? Everything – and nothing – has changed.
Nothing looks the same in my little town. The high school is being remodeled and some houses I remember well are either gone or dilapidated and newer homes are popping up where old homes used to be. I didn’t notice if the one stop light was still hanging, but it was definitely not being used. If it was, then I ran it. Everyone uses a new gas station now, the old church where I went with my grandma has a new addition, and the children of many of my friends are graduating from high school. Change. It happened.
Even the landscape has changed due to ice storms or tornadoes, but I discovered that if you take the time to get out of the air conditioning, the landscape hasn’t changed as much as it first seemed. In fact, it brought back memories of all the years that I spent outside with my siblings and friends chasing lightning bugs, swimming, and looking for four-leafed clovers.
At my parents’ house, my dad informs me that the landscape has indeed changed, but I have a hard time seeing it. I remember it as it was. He mentions subtle changes that range from no more honeybees to an overgrowth of young saplings and poison ivy due to the changed tree canopy that resulted from a recent ice storm that broke branches, felled trees, and let the sunshine in. I guess I can see what he’s talking about, but many things about the landscape that I have harbored in my memory haven’t changed at all. The flowers still grow, trees still stand, and the tree frogs still sing.
I’m just glad that my dad has let a wild rose bush grow rampant next to his yard (because I complained last year when he told me he needed to cut it out) and that trees still encircle their very humble home. Everything about where my parents still live speaks to me and while it’s not exactly the same, I feel transported into the past when I’m there. All of my memories are about roasting hotdogs, swimming in the creek, and climbing trees, although I didn’t risk the tree-climbing on this trip.
Most of us back home were raised in nature and I would be crazy not to use some of my sentimental feelings about those old times in my stories. In fact, I already have. I love to repaint memories of people and landscape from where I’ve lived and turn a community into something new, but recognizable to readers who want to go “home”. It’s no secret that I based the fictional La Rosaleda (In Ruby Among Us and Rose House) on the Sonoma area but it’s not the exact town of Sonoma I visited numerous times when I lived in California. And not surprisingly, the northeastern Oklahoma area that I grew up in has taken on a bigger role in my recent writings and brought to life a whole new string of stories.
It’s been a long time since I’ve even seen a copy of Wolfe’s book, but I think George’s fault was that he thought he was replicating his community and his memories didn’t match up with the community’s reality. When I write about a real town, I write about how I remember it, borrowing the very best – and sometimes worst – of where I have lived, and hope readers recognize their own communities in my stories, but I make sure that the towns always end up as fictional places and not replicas. We owe it to our readers to give them something magical that they can love, but nothing so exact that it makes our stories boring or annoys those who were our inspiration in the first place. We give them fiction that only feels like reality.
I’m not trying to create twins of communities in my novels. As writers, we are creating fiction, but mining our own histories of the best and worst of “how things used to be” can enrich our stories. So ignore Wolfe. Go ahead. Go home in your fiction, just be sure to take a different route out.