Do You Know Where You Come From?

vandergriftIf you’ve browsed my blog, website, or Facebook page, you know I’m from Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, and you know what it’s famous for. If not (or if you’ve forgotten), I’ll tell you. Vandergrift is the first worker-owned, industrially-planned town in America. When founder George G. McMurtry acquired an iron and steel mill on 640 acres of land on the Kiskiminitas River, he had a vision: a town that was unique, attractive… “better than the best.” He contacted Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who promised there would be no better town in the world “for physical health and comfort.”

Vandergrift 1895

“The town would be a site of natural health, wealth, and beauty; drained; graded; flat but convenient; good road and walks; not in squares, but according to the lay of the land; such water as flows from mountain springs brought into houses; sewers; expanse of grass; trees; outlook; modern above and below ground; electric lights, telegraph, telephone… bathtub… . Every man to choose his part with the means at hand of supporting that part; the people to own their houses and control their pursuits. The means of health and enjoyment of life within reach of all inhabitants. Liquor not to be sold there.” (Something Better Than The Best, 1996, p 20.)

That’s the town my grandfather immigrated to. He came to America in 1920 when he was just six years old. Despite the glory of the Roaring Twenties (something he was too young to appreciate), the whole country was experiencing Prohibition, so Vandergrift wasn’t the only “dry” town. But it was a beautiful town.

Vandergrift

Bottom left–Gazebo at Kennedy Park; Center–Houses on Emerson St.; Top Right–Old Casino Theater

Vandergrift was a town of curving streets, green parks, tidy homes with the latest amenities offering the mill and foundry workers all the comforts and health benefits the early 1900s had to offer. The town boasted churches in several denominations (St. Gertrude is now a National Landmark) and Rabbi Reubin Y. Rubinowitz sometimes led the town in holy days of worship. Citizens came out in droves to watch or participate in the many parades held throughout the year, and in the summer, families could always cool off at the community pool.

Naccarato home

The whole Naccarato clan in front of the family home

Yes, my grandfather immigrated to a wonderful town. His father died just eight years after they came here, leaving my grandfather as “the man of the house.” He quit school to get a job in the foundry, earning money for the household and helping raise his two sisters and four brothers. And he managed to do just that. They stayed in their home—a home that stayed in the family for generations. He only gave it over to his mother and younger siblings a year after he was married. My grandmother—my ninety-five year old grandmother—is still in the house he bought her. My grandfather’s original home was just sold from our family’s holdings last year.

There’s something about Vandergrift that gets in your blood and doesn’t let go.

Why am I telling you all this?

We were just home for Christmas. The town has changed. A lot. My parents were raised in a different town than the one my grandparents immigrated to. I was raised in a different town than the one my parents were raised in. My kids don’t recognize Vandergrift as the town my husband and I describe from when we were growing up. Times change. Progress? Maybe. I can’t say I see much that changed for the better in my beloved hometown.

But it’s home.

All of us need to remember that we are where we came from—at least to some extent.

And writers, this is especially true for our characters. They all have backstory. It might not all make it into our work, but it’s there. You should know it. And it should shape your characters. If I was a character in a novel, I’d be a girl living in the south who desperately misses the north. She misses her family, misses her friends. She has trouble shopping because she can’t find the right ingredients. She has trouble with colloquial phrases, and sometimes the locals laugh at her because of her confusion. Do I have to include any of that? No. If I choose to, I definitely shouldn’t say it explicitly. I’d just reveal it as the story progresses. She can be sad as she mails a birthday gift because she won’t be at the celebration. She can be confused when someone says, “Damn, Skippy,” and they laugh when she asks who Skippy is. She can be frustrated when she can’t find oil-cured olives and pancetta at the grocery story. The history should come forth in small snippets throughout the story, letting us learn about the character through her feelings about her home. Let it become a character itself.

Pay attention to your history. Embrace it. That’s where the enrichment is.

Where are you from? What makes it special? Share your story with us in the comments.

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13 Responses to Do You Know Where You Come From?

  1. P. C. Zick says:

    I appreciate all your Pennsylvania stories because it’s my newly adopted home (somewhat the same area). It’s important when living in a place to know it’s roots even if it isn’t what you’d describe as home. I grew up in a small town in Michigan, but left when I was 18. My brothers all left it as well. I was born there, my father died there (across the street from where I was born), and I sowed my wild seeds there. But I don’t feel as if I’m from there. I lived in Florida for thirty years, and that place is my home. My daughter was born in Ann Arbor but we moved from there when she was one year old. She claims a small town in North Florida as home. I write about Florida because of its setting and because of the characters that call it home. I love exposing them through dialogue because I let them speak for themselves without having to directly describe them. They take care of it all on their own. Thank you for a thought-provoking post, Staci, and sorry we missed each other once again on your return to your roots. Maybe next time. . .

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    • Staci Troilo says:

      I’m glad I can help you bond with your new home. I often think about you when I write about places I called home and places I might someday live, as I did live in Michigan for a while and I wouldn’t mind retiring somewhere warm (like Florida–we love it there). I’m convinced that someday our paths will physically cross and we can compare notes in person. Until then…

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  2. Where I was born and where I was raised are so totally different. Mountainburg, Arkansas is a small valley town deep in the Boston Mountains of the Ozarks, but we left there in 1942 and ended up in Wichita, Kansas, where my Dad went off to war and we settled in a Boeing housing project where my mother went to work on B 29s. I was raised in Wichita, a town with a Western flavor that influenced my writing for quite some time. Like you, Staci, I see such a wild difference in the town I was raised in and the one there now, they might as well be two distinctly different places.
    Yet my roots led me back eventually to Arkansas because we spent a lot of time here visiting relatives who remained in the Ozarks. So I feel I have two different hometowns, and both have had a lot to do with my writing.

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    • Staci Troilo says:

      I think my kids will be like you. They relate to Pennsylvania because that’s where they were born and that’s where family is. But they were mostly raised in Ohio and Arkansas (with a little bit of Michigan thrown in), so when they are adults and look back, they are going to have different “hometowns” to look back on fondly. I can’t wait to see where they finally settle, and where their children are raised.

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  3. My hometown is also Vandergrift, Pennsylvania. As Staci’s older sister, I too have different views of the town in which we grew up. I remember things that I could do that when she was old enough just didn’t exist. Both of us will tell you we had a great childhood. When I write, as inspiration for my characters, places and happenings , I use childhood experiences, places, relatives and friends as the base for my short stories, poems and novels.

    I agree that you don’t need to tell every detail to your reader up front. Letting the details of your places and experiences unfold throughout the writing keeps them interested. As a reader, I want to be enveloped in the story, not feel as though I am reading something through someone elses point of view. I want to feel as though I am part of the story, not just an outsider.

    As an author, I want my readers feeling that they can relate to my story and that they are so engrossed in my work that they cant wait for more. As the local saying goes, “Ya done good.”

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    • Staci Troilo says:

      We did grow up in a wonderful place, ” ‘n ‘at.” I wish our kids could have experienced what we did. And did you see the pic of Nana, Gramp, and the great-aunts and -uncles? Wouldn’t it have been great to live there when they did?

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      • Yes, I did see that picture. We were very lucky to have Grandpap’s brothers and sisters in our life. I can only imagine what it was like living back then, but think we would have loved most of it. But where would we be without the ability to communicate by email, text and cell. And could we really do our research as effectively without a computer. There are some things modern inventions that I have become accustomed to.

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      • Staci Troilo says:

        I do like the convenience of research and communication. And let’s face it, fashion has improved. But some things were just nicer then. And what I wouldn’t do for another day with Grandpap… But things are what they are. I’ll just have to be happy with my jeans and iPhone.

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  4. janna hill says:

    Staci that was both informative and entertaining. Damn Skippy it was.

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