So we just got back from an extended stay with family in our hometown over Christmas and New Years. It was wonderful. The kids got to play with Grandparents and Uncles and Aunts galore, and we got to just relax at our old stomping grounds. My husband and I are from the same city, so it makes holidays very easy for us.
Anyhow, this seems like an opportune time to write down something I’ve been musing on for a while. Hometowns (or Home Cities, or Home Countries).
The city in which I was born and raised is not a fancy, enormous, or famous city. You’ll likely not go there to sightsee or vacation. Nor is it a quaint small town with a quirky librarian and town troubadour.
So. Not the Big Apple. Not Star’s Hollow.
And, in all fairness, I haven’t even lived in my home city except for scattered months here and there since I was 18 years old. I joined the Marine Corps, then used my GI Bill to go to University in DC, then married right back into the military, and we hop about the country.
However, both my parents and my husband’s parents, and a good number of our relatives all live there, so we visit as often as we can.
I would not try to convince others that they must love my medium-small city. I would not try to convince you that it would impress or amaze. But I will tell you why it is possible for me to feel the same affection for my hometown as, say, a native NYC’er feels about their hometown. It’s all about what makes us love a place. A real place. Or–to provide a writing application–a fictional place. It’s about how a place can make its way into the bloodstream, despite being rather ordinary.
So, in no particular order, why people love a hometown:
I know people and people know me. Sounds simple, right? But in the military you move every 2-3 years and it can be hard to cultivate a community of friends and get to know your neighbors very well. In my hometown (which is not a town, remember, but a city) I run into people from high-school, or kids I used to babysit, or friends of my parents all the time. At Barnes & Noble. At Pei Wei. At the coffee shop. At the bakery. I love that I know the owners of that bakery and can chat with them while I peruse their fine wares. I love these people. We actually know and care about each other. Familiarity almost unto family-ness. It’s very cozy, and makes even a city of moderate size feel just a bit like a small town. So how does this work in fiction? The characters have to be real and warm and familiar, having their own complex lives, no matter how peripheral to the plot. They have to feel like someone you’d be glad to run into, or at least very interested.
I don’t have to use GPS everywhere I go when I’m home. I know the roads and highways reasonably well and unless there is ridiculous, incessant, obnoxious construction on the main roads (which, yes, there often is), I can just get in the car and go to a place without having trouble picturing where I’m going. In my parents’ neighborhood, I can just walk to any number of places. Fictional application? The location is clear in the head of the reader. It’s not just a haze of walls and roads. There are recognizable signposts, and texture that comforts. For the writer, it has to exist clearly in your head first, but be described simply and in comfortable passing until it becomes like that gas station you see every day on your way to work.
Even with people I don’t know personally or very intimately, there is a ‘sharedness.’ I can lament alongside someone I just met about how I also had an impression growing up that this one school district was ‘the snobby one,’ even though I knew nothing of it but stereotype. We can share in our frustration about that two-year-long road closure that makes getting downtown take 5 or 10 minutes longer. And wasn’t it sad when they closed down that one shop? I liked that shop. We may not know each other, but we know our city and its culture. We have that shared ground to walk on, if nothing else. We may meet but once, and know nothing about one another’s lives, however we meet our city every day. We have a mutual friend, as it were. In fiction, if your world, or city, or terrain is really well-fleshed out, not everything will be a mystery. There will be shared knowledge among local characters. This is why one character is often an outsider, because it gives the writer an opportunity to introduce everything from scratch. But its good to remember that sometimes people assume others know what they know about their terrain, because it’s all they know. In an era without planes or trains, everyone would know their local area very, very well. Every rock and shrub.
Let’s call this the “Cubs fan principle,” (despite my general lack of sports knowledge): Recent miracles notwithstanding, I don’t think a Cubs fan remains a Cubs fan because the team itself is observably the best thing ever. People are fans because they grew up fans and they’ve become entrenched. At that point it doesn’t matter if the thing they love is the best, shiniest one of its kind, or the most worn-out, half-functioning one of its kind. You love it because its yours and its yours because you love it. Reason does not always enter the picture. So, in fiction, it’s understandable if a protagonist wants to get out of their small town, but unless their association is 100% negative, there is going to be some native affection for the place. Some inexplicable draw, in spite of everything. Because sometimes, you just love what’s yours, even if what’s yours isn’t all that great in the eyes of an outsider.
Most places, even seemingly dull places, have something that is striking to the eye or heart. Oklahoma does not have the most dramatic landscapes, but its sunsets can leave you breathless. My hometown does not have the most dramatic architecture, but the old pedestrian bridge that use to be a railway track, is a pure joy to walk on, gazing over the river. Downtown may not host international attractions, but it has its beauties, its quirks, its joyful holes-in-the-wall. There is no place in all the world, I don’t think, that is all blandness and dullness. The open eye and adventurous spirit can find something beautiful anywhere. Our invented worlds may be bleak, or rough, or simple, or whatever, but let us not ever think there is nothing left to draw the eye, or stir the spirit. No place (and no person, for that matter) is to be dismissed as not worth our time and observation. There is something, somewhere that can root us, and cause us to be invested.
So now I’m back home (not hometown) and trying to find ways to enjoy and invest in where I am right now. It’s work, to know and love a new place.