I didn't consciously devise my books this way, but the living places I've created in the Darby Chronicles reflect mainly male thinking, while in my real world women determine the look and feel of living spaces. Is this misapprehension a result of my culture, my upbringing, my gender, or just a flaw in my own makeup? I don't have answers. Everything in a book is up to the reader to decide. Once a book is finished and the author abandons it to prospective readers the book no longer belongs to him. All I can say for sure is that writers reveal themselves by the subjects they take on and how they handle those subjects. But only if they're honest. Dishonest writers have the advantage; they can hide behind persons; they can sometimes fool their readers and almost always themselves.
Let's look at some of the women in the Darby series and their relationship to house and home. Elenore Elman married too young. She identified as best she could with the house her husband foisted upon her. But, really, she expressed herself through her garden and the quilts she made. Persephone Salmon lived in the grandest house in Darby, but it was built and its spirit sustained by her husband's people. Perhaps it was the realization that the house was never really hers that fueled her anger. The Jordan women–Helen and Delphina by marriage, Estelle by blood–lived in circumstances dominated by poverty, the culture of the Jordan clan, and limited formal education; they were never able to develop an idea of home that integrated with their own personalities. I wonder about the future of The Manse with Birch Latour and Tess Jordan. Whose vision will determine its next incarnation? Maybe Birch and Tess need Darby Doomsday, the game they invented, to work out the real difficulties that lie ahead for them.
Arelene Flagg lived with her brother Harold in the back of the Village Store. Eventually, she left, just disappeared; she woke up one day with a personal truth: Darby was never home for her.
The women of Great Meadow Mobile Home Park invest themselves in a potted plant, an appliance, pictures on a bureau. But that's it. The contemporary mobile home with its conveniences, its inorganic materials, its cramped building lots doesn't allow much room for an individual identity to express itself fully.
The idea of home in Darby, as I am trying to portray it, is best realized in the house and lifestyle of Darby's high-tech gossip, Dorothy McCurtin, who appears in all the Darby novels. Or maybe not–I can't remember. Let us review her situation in the most recent (and final?) Darby novel, Howard Elman's Farewell. Dot, like Howard Elman is widowed.
Her husband (I never did give him a name) had set up a little shop in the garage. After he died Mrs. McCurtin gave his stuff away to their children and his brother and now uses the garage for its intended purpose to shelter her new Jetta. She has always done as she pleases with the house. Mrs. McCurtin chose furnishings for the house without consulting with her husband; she managed repairs and (frequent) redecorations, constantly was on the look out at the "give and get" at the town dump–excuse me, transfer station–for items to enhance the appearance of the house. The paintings on the wall of covered bridges and flowers, many flowers, reflect her taste. No trace remains in the house of her husband or their children.
Somewhere between spare and cluttered is the right decor for the public rooms downstairs. The kitchen, dining room and parlor have the eclectic and tasteful look of one who prefers bargains from auctions, flea markets, and yard sales to new furnishings. Mrs. McCurtin shops where there's an opportunity to mix with her fellow Darby citizens. Her interests and attention are always divided between the products and the people. Mrs. McCurtin tastes extend over all architectural periods, but she is fussy about sizes, colors, and placement of objects in the home. She doesn't want any one item to dominate a room. She wants a visitor to feel comfortable and–how shall I put this?– somewhat at a lost to remember any particular aspect of her home; in her own words, "A touch of amnesia stolen from memory is good for the soul. Call it harmony."
Her bedroom/office is more revealing. After the kids left, after the husband passed on, Mrs. McCurtin brought in a crew to tear down a couple walls and combine the master bedroom with a kid's room. Everything is painted white and the hardwood floors have been sanded and urethaned so they gleam. Color is provided by red clay pots (no other color but red is allow) from which sprout greenery and flowers.
The furnishings in the bedroom/workroom are all new–desks, tables, office chairs. This is Mrs. McCurtin's communication center. Two computers, one a Mac, one a Windows machine, monitor all the news outlets. In addition there's a scanner tied to a voice recorder. When the phone rings and Mrs. Mccurtin picks up, the caller's voice comes across over a speaker so that Mrs. McCurtin can type while she converses with her sources and never mind that now she is in her middle … sorry, I mustn't divulge age. The bed is rigged up with hospital style serving table, because Mrs. McCurtin likes to sit in bed to talk on the phone, read, munch on scones with tea, and to write in her diary in longhand. Although she is surrounded by the latest computer equipment her most prized possession is a fountain pen she bought from the Levenger catalog.
Mrs. McCurtin has brought high-tech into the world of the town gossip.
Mrs. McCurtin does not deal in gossip for malicious or frivolous reasons. She thinks of herself as a journalist. She believes if everyone knew everything about everybody mass empathy would prevail. War would be unnecessary; domestic strife would be limited to disagreements over cribbage. Mrs. McCurtin is the most idealistic and perhaps the happiest person in Darby, New Hampshire.