This past week I’ve had the pleasure of reading from my novel, And It All Came Tumbling Down, and connecting with other creatives. I participated in WANA LIVE! The weekly broadcast from the Writer’s Association of Northern Appalachia, and at a book-signing with the Artist’s Attic in downtown Oil City. It’s always so fun to share my work, and to talk about writing. I often feel like I could talk people’s ears off about fiction, stories, places, and characters, so it’s nice to be invited to a captive audience!
One topic that came up in both of these events was the idea of settling down in one’s home place vs. leaving it, and starting fresh somewhere else. This is an idea that my novel explores extensively, in the journey of main character Amy Reilly. As someone from rural Pennsylvania, who moved away, came back, and moved away again, this is also an important conversation to me. As our society begins to have a greater awareness for sustainability, the dignity of rural places, and the importance of community-oriented living, the question for many people is threefold; Where should I live? Where do I want to live? And… Is it okay to want something else?
In the novel, the place in question is a post-industrial, Northern Appalachian town, and the answers to those questions aren’t cut-and-dried. The main character makes one set of choices, but her friends and family make other decisions. And to me, the most interesting idea is that none of these choices is inherently good, nor inherently bad.
So often in movies, in TV, in novels, in the stories of ordinary people, the choice between the big city and small town, or suburbia and a tight-knit village, or a life of adventure and a life of contentment, is a clear-cut, obvious choice. It is a simple binary, an easy moral decision. The flavor that the individual story may take is different, but the message is the same: you can’t have both options; you must pick one.
But the truth, as it so often is, is complicated. City life can be cold and isolating, but one can also be part of a vibrant neighborhood where everyone on the street knows everyone else. Country life can be peaceful and familiar, but one can also feel cramped, or as my main character puts it, “Spread out on a petri dish and microscoped”. I think we can all agree that humans thrive with a healthy blend of conformity and individuality, and all types of communities have the potential to offer or to inhibit this.
The choice we must each make, then, is not between Bad Big City + Good Small Town, or between Bad Small Town + Good Big City (or any iteration thereof). The choice might not be between anything at all. Instead, the choice can be one thing: Where should I be? And the answer to that is simply: it depends.
This is an anti-climactic and unsatisfying answer, one that immediately invites tension into our conversations about place. Because now the choice isn’t between something good and something bad, not in something right and something wrong. Instead, the choice lies in knowing the needs of oneself, knowing the needs of one’s community, and in deciding how both of those equally important needs should be met. The choice, then, is in a million other little choices.
This tension isn’t new, however. Our country is built on this tension, built on millions of people making the millions of choices to stay, to leave, to start over, to stay put. Both leaving and staying are in our DNA, and both have contributed to great good and great ill. When in the nineteenth century, my Irish ancestors left County Kilkenny and settled in Western Pennsylvania, they escaped poverty and famine in exchange for a fresh start. They also left behind their culture, family, and rootedness in exchange for a place that often descriminated, isolated, and exploited them.
The sum total of these transactions isn’t easy to calculate: we can’t say with certainty whether everything is a net positive or not. All I can say, all any one of us can say, is that we are here because of the choices of our ancestors, and that we can only make the choices in front of us, and that our descendants will make their own choices too.
And in the meantime, we will be living and breathing and working and loving in a place, no matter what that place may be, and because of this, that place will be important.
Find my novel, And It All Came Tumbling Down, here!
Photography by Donnie Rosie