If 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.”
“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 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.
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.