I’m crazy in love with West Michigan, but I think wherever I made my home I would find something to love about it. As much as anything, Raised in Captivity reflects my fascination with the immediate world around me, what happened before I arrived and how a sense of place shapes the people who live there.
When I returned to Michigan from Chicago shortly after my son Sam was born, I was disappointed not to be moving back to my hometown of Kalamazoo. Since I considered it to be the center of the universe, whenever I was somewhere else I felt a little off-center.
Two sets of my great-great grandparents lived just north of Kalamazoo along a 48-mile long, wooden “plank road” that connected Grand Rapids to the outside world in 1850. One of them, Asa Harding Stoddard, was dubbed “The Farmer Poet.” (Yes, I borrowed his last name for Caroline’s “love interest.”) He wrote many poems, but the one I love best is a satire about the sorry state of the plank road by the 1868. It begins . . .
Did you ever, friend or stranger,
Let me ask you free and frank,
Brave the peril, dare the danger,
Of a journey on the Plank?
I spent my first year in Grand Rapids researching this road and turning what I found into a feature article for the Grand Rapids Press’ “Wonderland Magazine” in May of 1982. I later edited it for the Kalamazoo Gazette. Eventually, I led at least a dozen bus tours along this historic route, pointing our toll houses and other historic landmarks.
When I look back on that project, I realize it was so clearly my way of coping with my change of venue, of finding a connection—in this case a very physical one—between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. It worked like a charm and I have grown as fond of my adopted home as I ever was of my hometown.
Wherever I go I need to feel rooted. I’m not sure everyone feels this way. But I know that if I had grown up in Montana or New York or even on a different street in Kalamazoo, I would be a completely different person. I think Raised in Captivity and its strong sense of place reflects that part of my personality.
The literature teacher in me might even go so far as to say that setting is a character in Raised in Captivity. In this sense I am a lot like Iris who is deeply attached to Willow Creek Farm. In Chapter 2, Iris, now a widow, contemplates this connection:
“Bill had been right—the farm was withering away. But Iris was unable to think of it as anything less
than an ailing family member in need of care. This land had raised her as much as her parents had.
Now, with Bill gone and the family scattered, the land had no one but her.”
At the beginning of the book, Caroline appears less anchored than Iris. (That may be part of her problem.) But things change drastically for her when she meets Neil. In the end, both Caroline and Iris take heavy risks to protect their home turf.
What role does your hometown, or your current place of residence play in your life? I’d love to hear your story.