In the fall of 2012 I drove from my home in New Hampshire to a Trimble Sketchup conference in Boulder, Colorado. (Sketchup is a 3d app, one of several I use to create digital drawings of Darby.) I gave myself an extra two days and meandered on back roads. I wanted to check out the heartland. Saw lots of sad sights. Signs of drought were everywhere: dried out river beds, corn stalks that reached no higher than three feet. But droughts come and go. A worse blight on the landscape was cultural, the recombobulation and in some cases discombobulation of the small town.
It was unusual to drive down a main street without seeing boarded up businesses. Few people on the sidewalks. Used to be I could always find a little cafe for coffee and homemade apple pie. Gone. All the vitality, where there was vitality, had moved to the highway, which is the recombobulation part of my tale. Everything used to be on Main Street; today it's on that highway that bypasses Main Street and all the little streets that give a town its character and identity.
That's the report for the big town. News of the little town, or the villages within the big town, is even more dire. The general store is gone. It's either been zoned out of existence or forced to close because people don't shop in local markets any more. I think a town loses something when a small local market closes down or, not quite as bad, gives way to chain convenience stores on the highway.
It's not news to most people that the small town–not just in the United States, but in the world–is in decline; everybody knows it or senses it. I'm guessing that most people don't care. I care. I'm a townie and proud of it. Even neighborhoods in cities lose cohesiveness when the local mom and pop grocery closes. By contrast when the box stores and restaurants come in, so do the people. Trouble is more often than not the owners of the new places live out of town and they take the town's disposable income with them.
In my New England some towns have melded into cities, others have just outgrown themselves. Derry, New Hampshire, used to be a nice little town. Robert Frost lived there, among other places. At this writing it remains technically a town, but it has 34,000 plus inhabitants. It's still a nice place to live, but the Derry of Robert Frost is gone forever. Still, many towns in New England have maintained their identity. It's that issue of town identity that interested me as a fiction writer when I started to write.
Some places, usually big cities, retain their identity over time no matter what–New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, come to mind–but small towns are more vulnerable. Even when the population of a town remains more or less stable, even if the building booms and busts are modest, a town's identity can take a severe hit when the village store closes.
The village store in Darby is located in Center Darby where you can also find the town hall, the post office, the library, a protestant church, and a village green or common. The grange hall has closed and stands idle, a sign that perhaps not all is right in Darby. All these structures are grander than the village store, but the heart and soul of the town is in that store that in olden days was a tavern. It's the main place where people congregate. They sit in straight back chairs around the wood stove sipping coffee and homemade muffins and breakfast sandwiches. And they talk. And talk.
Some of my readers have told me that they think Ancharsky's Store in Darby is based on the Westmoreland Village Store. It is and it isn't. It is in that in my imagination Center Darby with its town green and town hall and village store is a copy of South Village in Westmoreland, but everything else is fiction. The interior of the store I picture in my mind for the Darby store is a composite of village stores in many towns of the Monadnock Region. I went out of my way NOT to base any characters on the good people who have operated the Westmoreland store over the decades. However, the first proprietor of the Darby general store, Harold "Fatty" Flagg, is based on a real storekeeper, but from a town other than Westmoreland.
His is a sad story–or maybe not; maybe I only know a sad part of an otherwise fulfilling life. Back in my college years at Keene State I drove taxi part time. An occasional customer was a storekeeper from a neighboring town. He called one Friday night while I was at the taxi stand; it was my turn to go out, but Helen Kershaw, the dispatcher, told me to remain seated and she sent one of the older drivers. The dispatcher read the puzzled look on my face.
"You're too young–he likes the young stuff," the dispatcher said, and that was the end of the conversation, which I in my naÃ¯vetÃ© did not understand. Over time the storekeeper's story unfolded. He was a married man, but gay. Every once in a while he would hire a taxi to bring him to the city. I would see him on the streets, a fat man with a small pinched face, glasses, and a bald head. He would get very drunk, loud, and finally morose by the time he called for a cab from the pay phone of one of the local beer joints. On the drive home he was known to have made passes at younger drivers.
I felt sorry for the man and then one day when I happened to be on the highway I stopped at his store, presumably to buy some m and m's but actually so I could see what the storekeeper was like when he was sober. I happened to catch him and his wife while they were in the middle of a conversation. Or maybe she was his sister–they looked alike. I sensed an intimacy between them, but the nature of that intimacy was not revealed to me. They appeared to be a formal, even solemn couple, but also detached, as if they spent most of their lives attending a funeral that never ended.
Somehow my mental image of that couple wound up in The Dogs of March as Harold and Arlene Flagg, brother and sister. Arlene was the town gossip (later replaced by Dorothy McCurtin) and Harold was a selectman and storekeeper, who had a crush on Howard Elman's nemesis, Zoe Cutter. I loved writing about the Flaggs. I used them as comic relief. Later after I'd published the book, a storekeeper in a small town told me that Harold was not a realistic character. Fatty Flagg is politically involved in Darby. He has opinions that he expresses; he takes positions on issues. My storekeeper-critic pointed out that in the real world of town affairs a storekeeper would risk losing business by involving himself in any deep way in local politics. A good storekeeper knows when to keep his/her mouth shut.
To name minor characters I often grabbed the names of Keene people I knew as casual acquaintances. A man named Flagg worked in the finishing room of International Narrow Fabric cotton mill where I worked for a summer in high school. He was kind to me, and I was grateful. Harold Savage was a county commissioner in the Keene area, another man I admired. And yet I stole his name, too, and gave both names to an unlikeable character–Harold Flag. I knew a family named Pratt in Stoddard, New Hampshire, respectable people. I gave their name to the woman Howard has a one-stand with in The Dogs of March. Her son Porky is based on a guy I went to school with, who eventually went to jail for murder.
My apologies to the Flagg and Pratt families. We writers often make decisions during the madness of our creativity. That feeling, that expansive giddiness when we dream up, is not necessarily kind or sensitive to the feelings of others. Writing unlike, say, medicine and law, is a practice based on selfishness.