My last novel, Out of Stone, which takes place in 1920, is set in a in a town, Ramapo River, that I created partly from my memories of Saddle River, New Jersey, the town I grew up in from the time I was nine until I finished college. Those memories, I thought, were fixed, true to what was, a bedrock on which to set the fragile fiction of my characters’ lives.
Two of my characters inhabit houses I knew well. Bruce Minton, World War I veteran suffering from shell shock, lives in a stone house with French doors and an arbor off the kitchen – the house where my friend Connie lived. Marion Blauvelt, a sculptor who knows well about the dreadful wounds the war inflicted, lives in the house of the woman who kindly asked me in for cocoa on cold winter days. Twelve-year-old Suzanne, who is and isn’t me, lives in an entirely fictional house, but she finds succor from her terrible problems in the woods behind it, as did I, from my much lesser problems, in Robinson’s woods. The Saddle River, a trout stream, is the model for the river where Bruce goes to brood about his problems. Its swimming hole, approached through nettles, had blood suckers in it; inside the stone dam that created it, you could look out at the world through the falling water.
Saddle River still lives in my dreams. I’ll be out the back door of our house, down the porch steps, going up the hill past the crab apple tree, jumping from bog to bog through the swamp, running through the woods where we try out snowshoes and catch sight of phantom deer. Or I’ll be out the front door, going down across our road, past the concrete post guardrails with the woven steel ropes (not so good for tightrope-walking, we’ve found), running through the meadow down the hill to the river.
The town I remember is pretty much gone except for the land on which it existed. Robinson’s woods was bulldozed down long ago, but I know where the woods was – between our place and Chestnut Ridge Road, where the rich people lived. The river is still there, but the swimming hole is gone. The house I grew up in is gone. Connie’s house is gone. The house where I drank cocoa is gone. Saddle River now is a place of boutique businesses, groomed playing fields, and many-roomed houses so big they might as well be hotels, some with turrets like those on French castles. The lots they sit on feature huge swimming pools, so-called artistic landscaping, and Ferraris in long, long driveways.
I’ve not been back in more than 40 years. So how did I find out about the changes? By Googling Saddle River, looking at its present-day description, and seeing how it looks on a satellite map. It took a while before I realized something disconcerting: the woods and river were on the wrong sides of the place where our house had been. It was as if I would have had to cross the road to go through the woods. But I didn’t. Was the map backwards? It didn’t match what was in my head.
Finally, I had a brainstorm and asked Google to turn the map upside down. A miracle! The woods and river were where I thought they should be, on the “right” sides of the road, though the name of the road was now upside-down.
When I first moved to California, something very similar happened to me. The ocean was on the wrong side, and consequently north was south and south was north. It took months before I was oriented — more or less.
Scientifically, the disorientation has something to do with grid cells in our brains: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2384638/Terrible-sense-direction-Heres-reason-Newly-identified-grid-cells-blame-dont-know-left-right.html
I’d rather think about it as a metaphor for life (sort of). Our oceans switch sides. Down is up and up is down. We look at out-of-place things from different angles, turn them upside down to see. “North” becomes not so fixed. There’s no way back to what was, even with a map, upside down or not. It’s not so bad. It makes us open to everything. Nothing is ever as it was.
A similar violent disorientation, in their case stemming from the horrors of World War I, afflicts the characters in Out of Stone. Their world, too, has turned upside down. It will never go right-side up.
My friend, the artist Neil Brooks, drew the picture of our house with its barn and garage in the middle of the page from listening to me talk about it. (You can see his art at http://www.neilbrooksart.com.) He comes from Temple, New Hampshire, a small town that is today much the same as it was when he grew up there. He can go back. I can’t. Except in my own fiction.
Ann Elwood, October 19, 2015