Late last year, the childhood home of Kurt Cobain, the tragic lead singer of Nirvana, hit the auction block. I followed the story with interest, mostly because he and I grew up in the same town. And we were impacted by that— sometimes in similar ways, sometimes very differently.
Today, the home town we share, quiet little Aberdeen, Washington, celebrated Kurt Cobain Day, in honor of his birthday. It is hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since he took his own life.
How our hometowns shape us
In a novel, the setting sometimes has deep meaning—to the characters, plot and theme. And so it is with memoirists, except, perhaps, even more so.
In Cobain’s relatively short, troubled life, the little logging town of Aberdeen, Washington was everything he despised. He walked the same gray, rainswept streets I did. We even went to the same elementary school and high school (at different times, of course).
And though he left soon after his high school years, that little town impacted him enough that he later sang about the muddy banks of the Wishkah River. I felt his angst (though I know nothing about being kicked out of my home, as he was, and sleeping under the North Aberdeen Bridge, that crossed the Wishkah in one spot).
In Aberdeen, it is damp and cold and misty for most of the year. The weather can alienate you and make you hunker down inside yourself, even if you have a home. If you don’t have one, ‘under the bridge,’ conjures murky water and trolls and a deep-seated loneliness. If, on top of that, you are you a depressed, unfulfilled creative, as Cobain was, Aberdeen can be a very dark place.
When setting matters in story
Setting can impact story—whether it’s a novel or a memoir or a song— in complex ways. It can even, in some cases, become a character itself. Viewing the world through the grittiness of a town like Aberdeen can color the way a child looks at the world—and his or her hope for a place in it. It did for me:
In the 1960s, Aberdeen, Washington was a small mill town of weather-beaten clapboard houses. The fog drifted in from the Pacific Ocean as religiously as the tides, and hovered over the muddy river and pasture lands. The clouds gathered offshore, seeding the rain that moved in a wave from the sea, to the river, to the town, with no mercy, from Advent to Easter and into the summer.
The grass was squishy with mud, and spirits weary from the constantly hovering rain clouds. Saturating the ground and mixing with the warm air, the rain bred the mold that invaded houses and made rooms smell musty, even with the windows open.
I came to identify the visitors by the umbrellas they carried. If you were a true Harborite, you had no use for an umbrella. Most days, we cheerfully moved from place to place in the drizzle, hatless, blissfully unaware of our dripping hair and squishy shoes.
Like Cobain, Aberdeen made me most of all want to move away. I ran from it the first chance I could get. I knew if I stayed, I would end up waitressing at Duffy’s Restaurant or ringing up diapers at WalMart.
And yet, as I write my memoir, I find myself constantly drawing on the pain and the utter aloneness I felt growing up there.
It will just be one of those books where the land, the town, the place becomes one with the story.
What about you?
Have you ever read a book that has such a strong sense of place that the characters seem inextricably connected to it?