Novels are not memoirs, but they can be a way of exploring a landscape you hold inside yourself. I can't drive past an old mill — bricked-up windows and a broken clock tower, surrounded by cyclone fencing — without slowing down to watch the birds fly in and out of smokestacks that once streamed black clouds into the sky and kept the town in business. This summer, as you peel off the interstate to head toward Cape Cod, the roads and bridges are gleaming in Providence, Rhode Island, where the capital building has a classic white dome and Brown University stands on a hill in the distance. But my sisters and I never fail to laugh as we drive over the Braga Bridge with its rusted beams and peeling green paint, into Fall River, Massachusetts. "The city of hills, mills, and unpaid bills." We can say it, because our family is from
there, and we've always loved the once-thriving mill town. There was never any question of our affinity for Fall River when I was growing up, though the city has been economically struggling since the mid-1920s, when the majority of the local textile industries collapsed, like so many other New England towns that people drive through on their way someplace else.
As my novel Leaving Rock Harbor takes place between 1914 and 1934, it is really my grandparents' generation who are the models for my story. But while I did a lot of research on the history of the textile industry in New England, I chose to invent a town and characters that refract rather than mirror the lives of my grandparents, whose biographies, along with the story of the mills of Fall River, had been imbedded in me since childhood.
Fall River calls itself "The Scholarship City" whose motto is: "We'll Try." These are the kinds of slogans that my family loves to repeat to each other. I didn't grow up there, but my father did, and because it was important to him to imprint his own family history upon his children, we still feel a strong bond with the city, though most of the cousins from my generation have moved north to Boston, or out west. The people I grew up with usually left Fall River, or wanted to leave, but they always returned with that tenuous balance between irony and emotion that most of us bring home for the holidays.
My father left "The Scholarship City" on scholarship to Harvard after graduation from the once excellent local high school (now the central courthouse for the city — another irony that doesn't escape us). My father was the ultimate "poor boy makes good," forging a life for himself as a New York intellectual, and he raised my sisters and me in a world defined by art and politics. But he had an enduring loyalty to Fall River. It was perhaps more than loyalty, it was the central mythology that he passed on to his children — this is where we came from, or, as he titled his memoir, What We Had. The Chaces were fallen gentry, and my great-grandfather, Frank M. Chace, was president of the Massachusetts State Senate — the State Senate, not the Senate — and everyone called him The Senator. He was legendary in the family, not only because he had been a powerful politician, but because he was the last generation with money. Nothing pleased my father and his cousins more than to go over and over the most important question: Where did the money go? After the Senator died, there wasn't as much money as everyone had assumed from his Jazz Age lifestyle — The Senator left behind a mountain of debt and a son (my grandfather) who had been raised to excel at only one thing: playing polo.
My main character, Frankie, like my grandmother, Mildred Clarke, came from Poughkeepsie, New York, as a young woman so that her father, a British immigrant and skilled engraver, could work in the mills. Mildred Clarke married Hollister Chace, the polo-playing son of the Senator — who served as the inspiration for the character of Winslow Curtis — and while this was "marrying up," as they used to say, it all came crashing down on them with the Senator's death and the fall of the textile industry. This is also part of the trajectory of the characters in Leaving Rock Harbor. But these are touchstones for fiction, as is the setting: the southeast coast of Massachusetts, where my father brought us as children, forever leaving and returning to Fall River.
I lost my own job, including my family's health insurance, for a time last spring, and I was in good company. So many of us are wondering not only how to get through the rest of our lives, but the rest of the month. They didn't call the "Great Depression" a depression until it was over, and who knows what final label history will give to this early part of the 21st century. One question I was trying to look at through the lens of fiction was what happens to people when the world as they know it undergoes a profound and irreversible shift. At the turn of the last century, Fall River was a boom town, one of the largest cotton spinning cities in the country, producing 3.5 million yards of cloth per day. By 1924, the bottom had fallen out of the industry. Four years later, in February 1928, a terrible fire began in a mill that was being torn down, so the sprinkler systems and fire doors had already been removed. Flames spread quickly on the oil soaked wooden floors, on a night that was so cold that the fire hoses were frozen solid. Much of the historic downtown was destroyed then, and this event may have been the final blow to boom times. Main Street was slowly rebuilt, but by 1931, the city itself had to declare bankruptcy and the state of Massachusetts took over its finances. In 1937, the famous "Fall River Line," a fleet of classic passenger ships (each one a miniature Titanic complete with ballrooms and live orchestras), went out of business. Fall River was no longer a destination.
Even now, Fall River is not a place where people stop on their way to their summer vacations, despite the hulking presence of the Battleship Massachusetts, which is supposed to lure them off the bridge for a tourist moment. In the 1960s, the highway to Cape Cod bisected the city and the old City Hall, an architectural centerpiece, was demolished to make room for Route 195. The new Government Center was built over the highway itself; locals speed under that section of highway, for there have been instances of chunks of cement or metal — pieces of the new City Hall — falling onto the cars below. Short-term jobs and money came along with a road that cut the city in half and rerouted the river that once powered the mills. But who can blame the city council for deciding to go ahead with the project? Very few objected to the plan at the time. How do you get through to the end of the month?
In writing a novel rather than a memoir, I listened to echoes of the Chace family, shadowed by the spectral presence of the Flint Mill, where the character of Joe Barros, a Portuguese millworker and union organizer — and third point in the love triangle between Frankie and Winslow Curtis — leads a labor strike. Memory, and the unreliability of memory, is the raw material of fiction. I know these places, these mill towns and beaches, and I've sailed small boats on the Sakonnet River, as Frankie, Winslow, and Joe do in my novel. But the choices these characters make have nothing to do with my actual grandparents. Events and stories sift down through our lives, and for me the hold of the mill towns and the shabby genteel style of the relatives now fallen on hard times are ghosts that continue to reflect the present.