Elm Stump

Howard Elman, the protagonist of The Dogs of March and Howard Elman's Farewell, is a foundling. He doesn't know his family origins. Eventually, he does find out (in Spoonwood), but by then he's already formed an identity and is not about to abandon it and start over. Howard claims that he named himself after a particular elm tree. He half-believes his manufactured story, and when the tree is mysteriously cut down Howard's reaction sets the plot in motion for Howard Elman's Farewell.

Elm trees have played a big role in my life. I remember when my father came back from World War II and my family moved into a house on 19 Oak Street in Keene, New Hampshire. I had just turned age 5. It was a small lot on the side of a hill, but it included two very large elm trees. They were not unique. Keene was known as the elm city. (For a fascinating story, search the Internet for Cooke Elm Keene NH.)

I loved our elm trees and so did everyone else in our house, though the following spring my dad noticed that the trees didn't seem to have as many leaves as they should. Over the next two or three years, big trucks would come by and spray some kind of white foamy stuff into the canopy of the leaves. The stuff didn't work. The trees continued to die in slow motion. One day men came in trucks and over the course of a couple days cut down both trees, leaving only the stumps. By the time I graduated from high school all the elm trees in the elm city were dead and gone, victims of a disease brought in afar.

So when it came time for me to name my protagonist for what would be my first published novel, the name Elman (Elm Man) sprang to mind. I can't remember whether coming up with the name helped set the theme of the book, or whether I had the theme and found the name to fit the theme: local working man's life threatened by invasive species. In my mind the name and idea came at the same time. Anyway, it's a theme I've sounded in all my books.