Blogger: Wendy Lawton
I just finished reading the final draft of Julie Klassen’s second book in her Ivy Hill series, The Ladies of Ivy Cottage which will be out in late fall. Part of what I wrote back to her is this: “This may be your best book yet. I loved every minute of reading and was sad to come to the last page. Rich in detail, I couldn’t stop reading. You were made to write this kind of ensemble fiction— village fiction. I’ve come to realize this is my favorite kind of fiction, where the author creates a place in which I long to live and slowly lets us into each inhabitant’s life. Like Louise Penny’s Three Pines, Cranford, Gilmore Girls, Mitford, Avonlea. . .”
What do Amish fiction, Gilmore Girls, and Mitford have in common? The creators of all of these have tapped into our longing for a sense of belonging, a strong sense of place.
It brings to mind, Virginia Smith’s new Tales from the Goose Creek B & B series. In minutes stolen mostly from sleep, I read the introductory novella, Dr. Horatio vs. the Six-Toed Cat and the full length The Most Famous Illegal Goose Creek Parade. Two delightful reads and I’m a huge fan of this series and already long to move to the fictional Goose Creek, Kentucky. Yep. I’m a Creeker.
I’ve talked before about my enthusiasm for Louise Penny‘s Chief Inspector Gamache series set in the fictional Quebec town of Three Pines. As I’ve talked with other ardent Penny fans we all agree we want to meet at The Bistro someday. The village of Three Pines is more real to us than many of the brick and mortar towns surrounding us.
It’s the same with Amish or Amish-like series. I’ve actually visited the Kentucky Shaker community Ann H. Gabhart used as the setting for her Shaker village of Harmony Hill. Her new Hidden Springs murder mystery series offers the same sense of place. Ann understands the importance of a sense of belonging. She lives on an idyllic farm a mile from where she was born. She worships at a small country church just a short drive through winding country roads. Sigh!
Judith Miller has written two series about the seven Amana Colonies— High Amana, East Amana, Middle Amana, West Amana and the others. Each settlement is a community built around the concept of hard work, caring for one another, keeping the old ways and serving God. The one thing all six books have in common is that deep sense of belonging.
The same dynamic is the reason I love Alexander McCall Smith’s #1 Ladies Detective Agency. Precious Ramotswe, a “traditionally built” African woman starts her detective agency in the small village of Gabarone in Botswana. Her innocent wisdom and love for Botswana invites us into a community that somehow becomes our own. A sense of belonging to Botswana.
When I’m in need of regrouping or mindless refreshment I shamelessly binge-watch television episodes of Gilmore Girls— set in the town of Stars Hollow. Almost all the characters and settings are centered around the grassy town square. The townspeople walk to Luke’s Diner, to Doose’s Market or gather at Miss Patty’s. The setting becomes another character in itself. A sense of belonging. People leave and drift back throughout the series. I also binge watch British series, like Cranford and Lark Rise to Candleford, for that same sense of belonging.
And Garrison Keillor. I’ve long claimed Lake Woebegone as my true hometown.
Funny isn’t it? Do you know where I really grew up? In the Mission District of San Francisco. We lived on the second floor of a four-apartment building on Folsom Street. We owned a car but it was housed in a rented garage several blocks away. The lot our building was on was very deep. Behind our building was an unlikely treasure— an English garden. The garden paths were lined with abalone shells and it was fenced with Victorian iron railings. An old wisteria grew up the high rickety back stairs to our apartment. The garden gate was always locked but our landlady, Mrs. Miller, an English war bride, would open the gate to us while she gardened. It was there I learned about flowers– scotch broom, nasturtiums, irises and old English roses. The Mission was not a prestigious address. Not then. Not now. The lot next to us was a burnt out foundation– a pit that made the perfect playground for a pack of kids. Best of all, a billboard had been erected in the front of the empty lot. The billboard supports became the frame on which we built a platform–a clubhouse– with found boards and bent nails. Our own urban treehouse. A sense of place in a noisy neighborhood.
Our talks with editors often turn to “What’s next?” Why do readers still crave Amish? What is it that makes these books so perennially popular? It is that sense of belonging. C. S. Lewis named that deep need for place Sehnsucht— a German word he translated as an “inconsolable longing.” Lewis had it for all things “Northern.” He came to recognize it as an earthly expression of our longing for heaven.
So there you have it. That sense of belonging partly satisfies our sehnsucht— our inconsolable longing for our ultimate home. As novelists we simply call it the setting, but it is more. So much more.
What about you? What literary settings give you that sense of belonging? Do you see how powerful setting can be and how much readers long for a sense of place?