Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Tracy Kidder's Book on Hamp

Tracy Kidder's famous 1999 book is about a somewhat different Northampton than the one I knew when I first lived there. I lived in Northampton in the late 1970's, just before the real estate boom that transformed Northampton from a sleepy college town and middle-class haven into the trendy, upscale place known as NoHo. In those days if anyone had asked me where NoHo was, I wouldn't have known what they were talking about.

The nickname at the time for Northampton was simply "Hamp," with the term NoHo being born later out of some ad exec's brain as something that sounded like a high-class New York City shopping district. A lot of downtown was boarded up when I first lived there, and because nearly everything that was open closed at night except for on the weekends, we used to complain that Northampton was so dull that they "roll up the sidewalks at five o'clock." They didn't actually do that of course, but they may as well have for all the foot traffic the downtown got after sundown.

It is a much different Northampton that Tracey Kidder writes about. The modern Northampton was born out of the loose lending practices of the 1980's, combined with a fortuitous shifting in consumer tastes. Suddenly the public decided that they wanted an alternative to the sterile, neon lit environment of the modern shopping malls, and would flock to enjoy an old-fashioned downtown experience. Luckily for Northampton, it had been too small to be eligible for the taxpayer redevelopment subsidies that tore down so much of historic downtowns like Springfield and Holyoke. Downtown Northampton caught this new consumer wave with nearly all of its downtown unscathed by the deadly hand of government urban renewal programs. With the help of loose (later scandals would suggest sometimes crooked) money from local banks, the quaint old structures were remodeled and restored until the formerly dowdy old Hamp made its transition into the NoHo hipster wonderland it is today.

Hometown is not the only book Kidder has written in a Valley setting. His previous book, Among Children, was about a public school teacher in Holyoke. I never read that book, but as a former and once again present Northampton resident, I felt a responsibility to read Hometown.

Purely from a writer's perspective I admit to being impressed, in part because the genre Kidder is working in - that of following people around and writing about them - is one of the most difficult. It's hard to get people to act natural around you when they know you are going to write about them. Going about your normal routine is not so normal or routine when you have a writer trailing behind you scribbling in a notebook. There is an obvious temptation to say and do things just because you know it might end up in the book. This is the writer's version of the problem scientists sometimes have when studying nature, sometimes merely the act of observing alters what is being observed.

It is also a genre where you can easily make new friends that later turn into enemies. Most everyone likes the idea of appearing in a book, but what they really mean is that they like the idea of having their best self written about. Sometimes the subjects are not amused to realize that despite all their showboating, the writer has noticed and written about character flaws they were hoping would remain hidden or overlooked. In a certain sense each of us sees our lives in terms of a movie where we are the hero. It can turn into a problem once the subjects realize that the author has been observing them from a less exalted perspective.

But despite the pitfalls, Kidder succeeded in presenting his subjects in ways that ring true and he made a shrewd choice in making a local cop the central character. Since people never call the cops just to tell them that all is well, a police officer tends to see everybody at their worst, when private lives become public concerns because things have gotten way out of hand. That is why the book got mixed reviews in the town itself. Some Northamptonites hoped that Kidder's book would be an exercise in chamber of commerce style cheerleading, but continually returning to the perspective from a cop's cruiser meant that they would be disappointed. There are many ugly and weird scenes in this book, incidents that reveal very starkly what goes on in the shadows of downtown's bright lights.

"A great deal lay hidden and half-hidden in this small, peaceful town." Kidder writes. "Well before you understood all of it, you would feel you understood too much. Northampton wasn't New York or Calcutta. It wasn't even as large as the little cities to its south. As places go, it seemed so orderly. But what an appalling abundance it contained. If all of the town were transparent, if the roofs came off all the buildings and the houses and the cars, and you were forced to look down and see in one broad sweep everything that had happened here and was happening, inside the offices, the businesses, the college dormitories, the apartments, the hospitals, the police station, and also on the playing fields and the sidewalks, in the meadows and the parks and the parking lots and graveyards and the boats out on the river, you'd be overcome before you looked away."

Which is not to say that Kidder's book is a completely negative portrayal of Northampton. He obviously likes the place, and certain characters, such as former Mayor Mary Ford, receive almost glowing praise. There's a lot of local history too, told in a lively storytelling style that reaches as far back as the 1700's. Kidder obviously intended to approach Northampton from as many different angles and perspectives as possible.

And it works. The book starts off a bit slow, and I wondered at times how much someone who had never been to Northampton would get out of some of the details, but once you get entangled in the web of lives Kidder is portraying, Hometown evolves into a real page-turner. It is not a book that would appeal only to a local readership. While we'd like to think that Kidder wrote the book primarily for us Valley denizens, it is intended, and succeeds, as a book that was written to address a national audience. You need never have even heard of Northampton to enjoy this book. I ended up caring about these subjects in an almost personal way. Now how hard can you knock a book that has that kind of effect on you?

Around Town

I was in downtown Amherst this afternoon. With the nice weather all the outdoor tables were taken at Raos Coffeehouse.

Now this is what I call a yellow truck.

Tie-dye dresses for the hip tot.

Colorful sidewalk chalk was pointing towards the Gypsy Dog Gallery.

Instead of BEWARE OF THE DOG....


Don Schneier said...

Hunter has insisted that he has no idea what the China Cat lyrics 'mean'. However, especially on the Aoxomoxoa version, they match the music perfectly. Which may be the underappreciated point.

Mary E.Carey said...

What a cat! Was s/he in the gallery?