Photo credit: Meredith Zinner
In 1974 a judge attempted to undo the long history of racial segregation in Boston public schools by enacting a mandatory busing system. The retaliation was loud and televised nationwide, so that all of America got to hear the now infamous, ignorant ranting of white Bostonians in their donkey’s bray of dialect. Full of racist fire and brimstone, this was at once a new and very old jeremiad. It was as if all of our history’s ugliness was suppurating from its natal wound.
I grew up in the suburbs just north of Boston, where things were not quite this bad, which is kind of like saying the necrotic tissue surrounding a tumor is not quite as bad as the tumor itself. I speak of Boston as synecdoche, standing in for that colonial experiment known as New England. Here lies the splintered cradle of our deepest American myths — of progress and freedoms always misunderstood. It is the site of America’s Original Sin, white supremacy, in the Pilgrims’ campaign of long-term genocide against the First People.
After college I moved to the city of Boston proper and spent the larger half of my twenties and some of my early thirties there. I came of age in Boston, so I feel entitled to say that there is a lot that objectively sucks about it. In addition to genocide and racism, it has a traumatic history of child sexual abuse and the craven cover-up by the Catholic Archdiocese. And there exists a cornucopia of lesser crap, too, such as: a yearly influx of college students and the red tide of puke and chicken bones they leave on the sidewalks; Harvard (which is in Cambridge, but same difference), once the crown jewel of American higher education, now the punchline to a joke about bribery; a public transportation system that shuts down at 1 a.m., sending who knows how many drunks into their cars at night; weather that is, on average, only a degree or two colder than New York City but has the reputation of Winterfell, probably because everyone is so miserable about everything else. Even a major sport’s victory is no cause for celebration (did anyone cheer for the Patriots outside New England?). Once upon a time, Oliver Wendell Holmes once called Boston "The Hub of World"; now it is a setting for the occasional Saturday Night Live
sketch that grows in obscurity with each passing year.
I keep trying to do the reverse, to write myself back home to a place that will never be mine.
If I sound bitter it is because I am. I wrote a whole memoir about my failure to fit into various social realms of Boston. When in a last straw of frustration and loneliness I moved to New York City eight years ago, I made more friends in my first month of living there than I did in a decade of adult life in Boston. New York is better equipped to integrate the newcomer; it a city where almost everyone is from somewhere else. Boston is tribal to the extreme. Its memory is long and resentful. People not only judge you by how you look, how you talk, where you’re from (with the specificity of district and even street address), but also by how long your family’s been standing in one place, as movement from one community to another can only mean failure or the pretension of class betrayal. I have tried my whole life to make a home for myself in the place where I am from, a place that has always existed just beyond my grasp. It’s the dislocation of an unloved child. Bob Dylan famously said, “I was born very far from where I’m supposed to be, and so I am on my way home.” I keep trying to do the reverse, to write myself back home to a place that will never be mine.
Boston is not only the setting of my novel Last Day
, it is a character itself, a stand-in for America in microcosm. I wrote a strain of Calvinism into this fictionalized world, or more accurately, my bastardly understanding of Calvinism. (But even this intellectual discrepancy is a perfectly Bostonian conflict, if you consider the plight of Anne Hutchinson and other Puritan-era exiles.) In Last Day
, all the characters are marked at birth as either the damned or the elect and the fatalism that follows has the power to swallow them in mystical doom. An astronaut with WASPy New England roots wonders why he feels so empty at the pinnacle of success on the International Space Station. What happens when relentless hard work doesn’t deliver all that is promised? A teenager from a perfectly stable family is so desperate for control in an uncontrollable world that she is willing to sacrifice everything she has. Can anxiety be a form of penance for the privileged life we don’t deserve? And an adult survivor of child sex trafficking searches for community in a cult that promises the world will end any minute now. What do we do with the outsiders for whom every possibility for a good life has failed?
What these disparate characters have in common is that when faced with the possible end of the world, as the titular holiday Last Day celebrates every year, they will not go gentle into that goodnight. If they are going to die, they choose to die trying. The Puritans of Boston, from whose twisted imaginations our national ethos was sprung, were joyless religious fanatics who believed in Limited Atonement — the profoundly unfair notion that salvation was available only for a select few, that who was eligible for this grandest of rewards was an inscrutable lottery, and no amount of good deeds could change one’s fate. I see vestiges of this everywhere today, in our country’s growing disparity of wealth, in its deepening political divide, in the heroin epidemic, in racial violence and gender violence and random violence against school children. That same old Puritan fear of the Devil that lived in the woods now has the power to destroy the natural world with the denial of climate change.
But there is another part of the history-via-myth that holds me hostage, a version of Bostonian America that lives forever in my dreams and imagination: that even if Atonement is limited to the few, we never stop trying — to make things right, to make things better, to make something with the hope of outlasting ourselves. This the Boston I love, and by extension, the larger world I love, too, full of failure and doom and unceasing hard work.
“To understand the world,” William Faulkner wrote, “you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” There is a fundamental narcissism in this, and in my own obsession with my homeland as well. It feels indefensible, to care so much about a place with so much damage to make up for. Watching the footage of the 1974 Bus Riots now, I wither in disgust. I wasn’t alive then, but I bear that shame. All of us from Boston do, or should. It is the most loyal act of patriotism to that most puritanical city — to carry its inherited shame.
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was born and raised in Danvers, Massachusetts. She is a graduate of Oberlin College and holds an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. She was a finalist for the Keene Prize for Literature and has been awarded residencies at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, the Blue Mountain Center, Jentel, and Hedgebrook. Last Day
is her first novel.