Writing about Place

By Mary Clearman Blew

With boughs that quaked at every breath,
Gray birch and aspen wept beneath;
Aloft, the ash and warrior oak
Cast anchor in the rifted rock;
And, higher yet, the pine-tree hung
His shattered trunk and frequent flung,
Where seemed the cliffs to meet on high,
His boughs athwart the narrowed sky.
Highest of all, where white peaks glanced,
Where glist’ning streamers waved and danced,
The wanderer’s eye could barely view
The summer heaven’s delicious blue;
So wondrous wild, the whole might seem
The scenery of a fairy dream.

Writing about place in fiction may seem curiously out of date, a hold-over from the old romantic poets, perhaps, or the local color writers, or the novelists in the tradition of naturalistic determinism, whose grim landscapes foreshadowed the fates of their characters. In the age of big-box stores and chain fast foods, where a McDonald’s in Seattle is indistinguishable from a McDonald’s in Atlanta, except perhaps for the accent of a server—“Do you want to super-size your drink?”—or the accent of a customer—“Yes, and extra sauce!”—what is there for a fiction writer to tell a reader about the surroundings of her characters, and how should she tell it?

Defamiliarize the place, advises Charles Baxter in his 1997 Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. Look for the stray detail, the off-beat, the action on the periphery of the scene to see the familiar from a fresh viewpoint. Then strip the detail of its usual meanings. Consider Margot Livesey’s novel Banishing Verona, in which Zeke, a young man with Asperger’s syndrome, experiences airline travel for the first time. What could be more familiar and boring to most of us than the interior of the passenger cabin of an airliner? But here is Zeke:

Still holding the glass, he pushed the tray up—it snapped shut in a satisfying manner—and pulled out the contents of the seat pocket in front of him. His haul included a paper bag bearing the words IN CASE OF MOTION SICKNESS; a magazine, filled with photographs of face cream, perfume, watches and scotch, so glossy that it almost slipped from his touch; another magazine that listed things to do when you returned to earth—play golf in Arizona, buy glass in Venice, listen to Mozart in Prague—and finally a list of safety instructions, showing emergency exits, how to use the life jacket, the system of inflatable rafts available in case of a water landing (196).

Livesey’s point, of course, is not just to give her readers a fresh view of the interior of the cabin, but to illumine Zeke’s inexperience (playing golf in Arizona or buying glass in Venice are beyond his wildest imaginings) as well as the depths of the fear he has had to overcome to make this journey. As Baxter points out, “How a person sees the things that surround him usually tells us more than an explicit description of his mood” (92), but adds, “No law dictates that the setting should always express the feelings of the characters” (103). Is it possible, Baxter wonders, for objects to take on a life of their own, in effect for objects to become subjects? His answer, after examining a range of novels including To the Lighthouse, Gravity’s Rainbow, Nabokov’s Bend Sinister, and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, is a qualified yes, and that the result can be magic, uncanny, eerie.

Robert Boswell extends the object-as-subject beyond the uncanny and into an alternative universe where a dull “well-crafted story” (108) may be lifted into the magical, where

…there are…moments when the utterly ordinary takes on a measure of strangeness. Now and again, you may even feel as if you live in two worlds at once, one that is orderly and regular and looks like the representations of life you’re accustomed to, and another that is disorderly and irregular and nothing like representations you’ve seen anywhere (111).

Often, Boswell adds, this alternative universe is glimpsed in the course of a journey. In Alice Munro’s story “Illinois,” Andrew Laidlaw travels by oxcart in 1840 from Ontario, Canada, to Illinois to fetch his dead brother William’s widow and her children. The eldest of these children, Jamie, is devastated by his father’s death and tries to keep his mother from taking the family to Canada with his uncle. But despite Jamie’s desperate efforts, the oxcart is packed with the family’s goods and the journey back to Ontario begun. By the time his uncle stops for the night at a small wilderness settlement, Jamie has grieved himself into a world where the solidly human is a sham, the invisible is real, and the air contains human shapes:

He understood, when they left home, that his father—who was not under that stone but in the air or walking along the road invisibly and making his views known as well as if they had been talking together—his father was against their going. His mother ought to know that too, but she was ready to give in to that newcomer who looked and even sounded like his father but was entirely a sham. Who might indeed have been his father’s brother but was just the same a sham (103).

Jamie’s spur-of-the-moment plan to force his mother to return is to steal his baby sister, hide her in a shed, and claim that she has been kidnapped by an Indian woman who has followed the family from their old home. In one of Munro’s favorite devices, Jamie’s plot is ruined when the baby is discovered by two bored teen-aged girls who, in an action parallel to Jamie’s, like a metaphor for the alternative universe, take the baby to use as a prop in a practical joke on the stable boy. Jamie, returning after dark to check on his baby sister, finds her—gone.

Eventually the baby is rescued by Uncle Andrew, who wastes no time wondering why she would be in the stable boy’s bed, but returns her to her mother. He decides not to interfere with the story of the Indian woman and “left the matter uninvestigated. The lad [Jamie] was sly and troublesome, but by the look of him in the night he might have learned a lesson” (109).

So the next day the family journeys on. At midday they come to a pond where the oxen drink and the children bathe in a lovely pastoral scene:

…the two older boys took off their clothes and climbed a tree with an overhanging branch and dropped again and again into the water. The little boys paddled at the water’s edge and the baby slept in the long grass in the shade and Mary looked for strawberries.
A sharp-faced red fox watched them for a while from the edge of the woods. Andrew saw it but did not mention it, feeling that there had been enough excitement on this trip already.
He knew, better than they did, what lay ahead of them. Roads that were worse and inns rougher than anything they had seen yet, and the dust always rising, the days getting hotter…(109).

The pleasure of the life-giving water, the sleeping baby, the possibility of strawberries, all are undercut by the fox that watches from the edge of his own universe. Practical, rational Andrew gets the last word in the story, but even he is touched by the uncanny, the half-known, as he ponders his brother’s death. “And yet—there was something about all this rushing away, loosing oneself entirely from family and past, there was something rash and self-trusting about it that might not help a man, that might put him more in the way of such an accident, such a fate.” (111). This moment leads me back to the lines from The Lady of the Lake at the beginning of this essay. (While I do not have space here to discuss Scott’s use of the pathetic fallacy, the interested reader may consult Baxter’s discussion of John Ruskin and his analysis of the pathetic fallacy in his “On Defamiliarization.”) Some might read these lines simply as a nineteenth century purple patch, or a venture into the exotic territory of romance, but Scott is in quest of the magical. His lost king’s eyes travel up the mountain, from the “birch and aspen” that “quaked” and “wept” to the “ash and warrior oak” and finally to the pine, whose boughs touch the “narrow’d sky,” barely to be glimpsed, which is “wondrous,” “heaven,” or a “fairy dream.” Suddenly the king, and the reader, have torn the veil between the ordinary and the uncanny and found Boswell’s “shimmer” (112), where landscape no longer functions merely as an appeal to the armchair traveler or as a reflection of a character’s emotions, but as a half-glimpsed universe of possibility beyond our understanding.

Baxter, Charles. “On Defamiliarization,” from Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. St. Paul, Minnesota: Greywolf Press, 1997.

__________. “Talking Forks: Fiction and the Inner Life of Objects,” from Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. St. Paul, Minnesota: Greywolf Press, 1997.

Boswell, Robert. “The Alternate Universe,” from The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction. St. Paul, Minnesota: Greywolf Press, 2008.

Livesey, Margot. Banishing Verona. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2004.

Munro, Alice. “Illinois,” from The View from Castle Rock. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

Scott, Sir Walter. Canto I, stanza 12 from The Lady of the Lake. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Fredonia Books, 2003.

Author Bio

Mary Clearman Blew is the author of a new memoir, This is Not the Ivy League, forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press this September, as well as Bone Deep in Landscape: Writing, Reading, and Place (University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), Balsamroot: A Memoir (University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), All But the Waltz (University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), Lambing Out and Other Stories (University of Missouri Press, 1977), Runaway (Confluence Press, 1990), Sister Coyote (Lyons Press, 2000), and Jackalope Dreams (University of Nebraska Press, 2008). She also edited Written on Water: Essays on Idaho Rivers (University of Idaho Press, 2001). Blew has won two Pacific Northwest Booksellers Awards, the Western Heritage Center’s prize for fiction, the Mahan Award for contributions to Montana literature, the Idaho Humanities Council’s 2001 Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Humanities, a Handcart Award for Biography, and the Western Literature Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.