Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Marj Casswell's "A Place to Come Home To" Articulates the High Cost of Settling

Humans, even nomads, are settlers at heart. We want a place to come home to, a hearth to warm our hands around, and other humans to love us. Marj Casswell in "A Place to Come Home To" tells a story of these ordinary yearnings and the high price they exact from us.

In the opening frame of the novel a 40-year-old woman returns to her father's house where in her girlhood their rich Virginia tobacco farmland stretched in every direction. Time and change have intervened. Her mother and the land are gone, but six diaries from the year she was ten call out to her when she revisits her old room. The ending frame ripples through the years between ten and now, interpreting her life through the insights gained in her reflection the diaries have brought.

While the opening and closing frames give us a sense of context and the passage of time, the guts and heart of the book lie in the 38 chapters between these frames, as all revealing photographs do. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from these diaries written in the summer of 1956 when everything changed and the gravel pit came. The diary excerpts serve as epigrammatic themes for what lies ahead in each chapter. I read the book twice, and on the second reading, I began to title the chapters to keep better track of the ebb and flow of the book's action and interludes.
"A Place to Come Home To" is both a coming of age story for 10-year-old Meredith (Merri) Coopersmith and a losing of an age. On an intimate canvas Casswell paints the sweeping story of the loss of the family farms and the end of an era. No more will there be a time when the small family farm is a viable way of life.

Both within the Coopersmith nuclear family and extended family we see how land exerts its pull on some and how the pleasures of the city call others. Yearning, hard work, and even strategy cannot save the farm or even the innocence of the community. The gravel pit opens its gaping yaw and swallows up farm land that later will, in turn, be swallowed up by housing developments.

Casswell shows the turbulence inside normalcy. As the world around her changes, the rules around her change, curtailing her adventures on the farm. But her curiosity cannot be held in check. I feared something terrible would happen to Merri in the gravel pits.
Instead, we're shown in delicate and realistic detail the emotional and spiritual development of a young girl facing family and community conflict and dissolution of life as previously known. We are let inside the interior world of her imaginative daydreams and fantasies. Her parents love her and take good care of her, yet in spite of that, she feels the tension present in their marriage and wants to make it better for them in order to stabilize her world. She carries an adult sense of responsibility that alters her childhood, in spite of her Aunt Elizabeth's efforts to give her a childhood without cares back to her.

A thread of settling runs through the book--both the positive and negative conations. Merri's ancestors come to the land as settlers and set up a lumber mill. But, in a kind of fall from Eden, the first settling occurs: "they had to sell off most of the land with trees...because they needed money to live. That's when they went to growing tobacco. Everybody around here was [growing] it," her Uncle Lowell (who carries the spirit of the land) explains to her.

This selling off the resources of the land for cash becomes a precursor for the gravel pit contract that brings evil things into a young girl's world. Each generation has struggled with how to make a living off the land. Arguments have sprung up in each generation. There are those who want to husband and steward the land and those who are just desperate to make a go of it. As a result there's a slow decline of the land, and a sense of decay and struggle, despite the wish to restore what's been lost and the honoring of hard times to save a legacy.

The tension in the Coopersmith marriage between Ted and Ellie springs from these differences, as husband and wife want different things. Ted, working a job in town so he can stay on the farm, is sober and focused on labor. Ellie, a good mother, but a city girl at heart yearning for music, dancing, flower gardens, and good times. She's a city girl transplanted to the country, and the transplant didn't take. She's lonely. Ellie finds her husband boring, but has settled down into the marriage, if restlessly, and after a costly error. In this case she settles for a lack of vibrancy in relationship in order to avoid divorce and dies six years later. And Ted settles into his workshop, a world where there are things he can fix and do something about.

Casswell writes of subtle shifts through thematic explorations more than a novel driven by action and plot. This is a quiet, thoughtful and reflective story punctuated by lyrical passages of the workings of nature and a child's delight in the freedom of exploring the outdoors.
"A Place to Come Home To" gives us a big story in a small package. Its over-riding theme is that time moves on and we must change with the times.

Visit Janet Grace Riehl's blog "Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century" at for more thoughts and information about making connections through the arts, across cultures, generations, and within the family. You can also read sample poems and other background information from "Sightlines: A Poet's Diary" on Janet's website.

1 comment:

Anne said...

I loved Janet Riehl's review of Marj Casswell's =A Place to Come Home To.=

She wrote a thoughtful, cohesive review that transcended the normal who-what-where- of many book reviews and concentrated on the why-elements that bring good writing alive for we multi-dimensional readers.

Marj's young protagonist is lucky to have encountered her hard-won truths at the age of ten. I feel a companionship with her because I underwent my transformation into adult understanding at eleven.

I want to read this book. I want Janet to review my new book. She is thoughtful, kind and fair. I pop into her blog every few days, just to see what's happening.

The book review forum of WWW is an outstanding way to provide exposure for members. Thank you Janet, and Sherry, and the other reviewers whose work graces the pages.