I’m on the road with Harry’s Our Man. In late May I was at the Hingham Public Library doing a reading of Harry. I’ve spent thirty-five years making stories and performing them, so standing and just reading is new. I’m exploring a combination of reading a bit and having the reading flow into telling. A few weeks ago my wife and I went to a poetry reading by Naomi Shihab Nye. Naomi was welcoming, funny and gracious. The funniest parts have nothing to do with her poetry. So I tried the same thing and found I was a bit wooden.
I prepare the programs and I have a wonderful time reading the book. The characters are completely alive for me and so are the places.
I reflect and I realize how important language was on Pill Hill. Everybody was well educated and had fun with the language. There was one Pill Hill doctor who was famous for being at cocktail parties and when he disagreed with someone he would say, “There is mush in what you say.” And then of course there is the famous quote of someone talking about her great aunt saying, “She was in the pink of decay.” Language at the tenement section at the bottom of Pill Hill, a section called The Farm, was fiery, wild and often rude. That reflected their lives. Most of the people living in that tenement section had tougher lives. They did not have the protection of lots of money, an important profession, power and influential friends.
After I gave the talk at the Hingham Public Library a lovely woman came up and said she grew up in The Farm. The woman had a bright intelligence as well as a confidence and a clear delight in life. I said that I knew a boy named Chickie from The Farm and she said, “He’s my cousin.” A few days later we had coffee together at Starbucks in Marshfield. And the woman said she grew up in one of the tenement sections and moved three times. Each time their apartment looked down upon the tar playground that was the center of The Farm. The playground seemed a dangerous place to me. I can remember some of my friends not only climbing up the telephone poles but climbing right on top of the crossbars, and from there they would leap to the branch of a tree. I was a good climber but that was beyond me. But the woman I was talking to said she would look out of the windows and would be delighted with the bright colors of the swings. “They were wooden swings and they were bright. Some were orange others blue others yellow.” I could imagine her as a girl full of the poetry that all children are filled with. And that saddened me because the two areas, Pill Hill and The Farm both had their stereotypes. The people on the Farm called us “richies” and I know from my friends there was some resentment and anger towards “the richies”. And the people on Pill Hill had their own prejudices and felt some scorn for everyone who lived down at The Farm.
The woman I was talking to said that drink took a terrible toll on the people who lived on The Farm and I said, “The men?” And she said no, the women too which surprised me. So there was a great deal of drinking down on The Farm but that was true also on Pill Hill and more importantly on Pill Hill many of the teenagers tried to take their lives, and three succeeded. In my novel the central character, Harry Hutchinson, is very upset that young people are taking their lives and he doesn’t understand it. Harry wants to find the words, the language to understand the connection between the atomic bomb, the splitting of the atom, the young people taking their lives on Pill Hill and the fear he feels in the whole of the society. It’s 1950 and there is some fear that there will be a nuclear war. There is also a fear of communism and a good deal of red baiting going on. As a young man Harry decided to be a socialist and he knows if he runs for Congress he may be the victim of red baiting.
So just going off to Hingham to do a reading of Harry’s Our Man brought me in contact with a woman who grew up at the bottom of Pill Hill with a very different life. She was a brave, lively woman who remembered The Farm fondly and yet felt the pain of those who had become alcoholics. This coming Wednesday, June 6th I’ll do another reading at the Brookline Booksmith only a few miles from where I grew up. I’m excited being on the road with Harry’s Our Man.