There's a great passage toward the beginning of Wallace Stegner's novel Crossing To Safety
in which Larry Morgan, in transit from California to Madison, Wisconsin, with his young wife in1937, enters his new state from the west in a hard rain. They pass "browning September cornfields, and pigs knee-deep in muddy pens," driving through Platteville, Mineral Point, and Mount Horeb before the wiper blade breaks and Larry has to drive the rest of the way with his head out the window, water streaming down his face.
I arrived in Madison in 1991 with my soon-to-be husband, like the Morgans, shortly before the beginning of the academic year. We came from the east and arrived, not in the rain, but in the middle of a heat wave. Larry reports that "traffic led us directly into State Street," but we had a lot of trouble finding our way downtown from the new highway, and as dusk fell we were thrilled and relieved when we saw, at last, the gleaming Capitol dome.
Nonetheless, the memory of the Morgans's entrance shadowed mine. I wondered if I would find the city as Stegner describes it: "[an] odd community, half academic, half political." I wondered whether we, like the Morgans, would find great friendship there; whether our lives would be changed forever. Such is the power of literature to shape one's experiences, one's expectations, and one's sense of place.
A lot changes in three quarters of a century. Our Madison had seen and survived World War Two and the radical '60s. It had spread geographically, both east and west, gobbling up farms for housing developments. It had built tall buildings and converted factories into hip lofts and produced one really great restaurant (these days, there are many). Like Sally Morgan, I had a child in Madison, which made me feel I would always be connected to the place. Like Larry, I found the city a good place to begin a novel, and I thought I would set the novel there. I would get my vision of it ? my Madison ? down on paper.
In my book, Lady of the Snakes, as in Stegner's, the protagonist starts outside the city and moves in. For her, as for me, moving to Madison felt like moving to the country:
The whole city with its lakes and wide views of the sky and its smells of algae and grass had an expansive feeling about it after the ancient brick and dirty streets of New England…The sky towered over them, a pale luminous blue shot through with gold. Somewhere a marching band was practicing.
That is my Madison ? or at least my Madison in summer. In winter it's a different story:
[T]he temperature dropped well below zero, making it painful to breathe... The wind blew, gusty and fierce, off the frozen lake, cutting through thick down coats, under scarves, nosing in between the stitches of woolen gloves. Siberia, Jane thought, riding home from work on the city bus in the early darkness.
I've been keeping a mental list of books that take place in this lovely city. When I first read Ann Packer's The Dive from Clausen's Pier, I was so excited to find another story set in my beloved landscape! Picnic Point, and the brightly painted Victorian houses near Lake Monona, and the little lakeside parks where I had taken my children: "I...walked down to the water, where a cloud of gnats swarmed over the grassy green edge. Both lakes could lift my spirits ? silvery blue when the sun was low, or vast and frosty in winter." I was sure Packer had taken the name Clausen's from my favorite Westside bakery, and had modeled her State Street clothing boutique on one in which I longingly tried on dresses I could never afford.
Katharine Noel's Halfway House has several chapters that take place in Madison, and she captures its run-down, studenty side: the big houses subdivided into small apartments, the sense of the city's emptiness during the long summers. Jesse Lee Kercheval's marvelous book, The Alice Stories, follows a Madison woman from her student days through middle age, and shows the city's various neighborhoods in all kinds of moods, from the "solid concrete white of the frozen lakes in winter" to the warehouse supermarket (which I well remember) "with its double aisle of frozen pizzas as long as a football field."
What is it about reading a novel about a place you love that delights the heart?
Part of what fiction does for us is to confirm, by getting it down just right in language, that the world as we sense it really exists. Yes, that's marriage! we say. Yes, that's despair, insomnia, manipulation, an autumn sunrise. Yes, that's my city, the place I fell in love, the streets I used to walk alone in the rain when my heart was broken: that's how they looked, smelled, sounded; that's how the air tasted; that's how the light fell through the burr oaks that are like no other burr oaks anywhere in the world.
Reading about places we love is a special pleasure, but writing about them is even better. When I was working on Lady of the Snakes (and living in exile in Newark, Delaware), I found deep solace in getting to spend every morning imagining myself back home. I could describe the dark church at the end of our yard in winter; the elevator in the building where I used to work; the playground near our house with the pair of painted horse swings swaying above the dusty gravel. I could feel myself back there and, what was more, that I was building a small monument in words to a place I loved. Other people might have Paris or New York (deservedly well-chronicled cities), but I've been lucky to love a place less exhaustively described, a place there was still room to map in words.