If you know me, you know I adore stories with a strong sense of setting. Novels in which the place almost takes on its own character. Where the protagonist has been shaped by where they live and can have a personality that mirrors the town she or he grew up in.
The Home Place is such a book. In her “Behind the Book” pages after her novel ends, the author, Carrie La Seur, talks about her connections to Montana, the state her story takes place in. And what a rich, documented history. Her great-great-grandmother left handwritten journals about her childhood, including the winter day she stood watching as the Nez Percé tribe made their daylong ride with thousands of ponies. What a sight that must have been.
Carrie grew up on stories like this. Without giving too much of the plot away, in a parallel to her own life, as her main character, Alma, explores who she is, why she left her home town and her longing for “rootedness,” so Carrie decided to return to her home state after a long absence
A Sense of Place
From her breathtakingly gorgeous first paragraph, La Seur pulls us into her world. The place these characters will inhabit for the rest of the story:
The cold on a January night in Billings, Montana, is personal and spiritual. It knows your weaknesses. It communicates with your fears. If you have a god, this cold pulls a veil between you and your deity. It gets you alone in a place where it can work at you. If you are white, especially from the old families, the cold speaks to you of being isolated and undefended on the infinite homestead plains. It sounds like wolves and reverberates like drums in all the hollow places where you wonder who you are and what you would do in extremis. In this cold you understand at last that you are not brave at all.
The setting within which this suspenseful story takes place, is harsh and unforgiving, yet holds a certain comfort for Alma, for it is home. In Chapter 3, Alma is coming back home for a visit, pondering her hometown from her airplane seat:
Billings lies in the Yellowstone River valley, framed by vertical Sacrifice Cliff and the stunning outcrop know locally as the rimrocks, which together give the city a broad canyon feel. The south side, along the river and the interstate, is a fortress of refineries and the industrial space. The sweet spot is farther north, where many visitors never penetrate—the quaint old neighborhoods, the gracious parks, the colleges. In her memory Alma forgets the rough spots and remembers only the sunny hometown embrace.
When her sister’s mysterious death brings her back home, the Home Place of the book’s title, Alma is struck by the comparisons of the desolateness of the landscape and the grim hopelessness of her sister’s life. Would her life have been the same if she had stayed?
My novel-in-progress, The Bark Peeler’s Daughter, is set in the Olympic National Rain Forest band of the Pacific Northwest, where it is dark and rainy 10 months out of every year. It is also where I grew up, so I know it well. I have blogged about this, “Rock Stars and Writers: How Our Hometowns Shape Us.” You can read it here.
If you are a writer, has setting ever taken on a major role in a work of yours? If you are a reader, have you read any books that absolutely transported you to the place the story was set in?