This past Saturday I had a rather unique experience of reading a new novel to my hometown. The novel is set in Mingo Junction, Ohio, a small industrial town along the Ohio River, and because I was back home to help celebrate the school workers of that town...teachers, principals, custodians, cooks...I was asked to be the "guest speaker." My wife's mother Sue was being recognized for 30 years service as head cook. She retired at 81 because of a broken hip. I retired at 62, though I'm still teaching parttime. For decades Mingo Junction has based its economy on the Wheeling-Pitt Steelmill, and it has been recently sold to a Russian owned company that has shut it down. There is an eerie silence about the town, and work and money are short.
My wife and I had not been back for months yet we could feel the tension of this economic depression, and so it made my few minutes at the microphone more significant. Caught up in the nostalgia of being back in the school gymnasium, I was just quietly happy to be there, to feel my roots again. Families were gathered on that rainy afternoon. Many of the honorees sat before me. We did the pledge of allegiance, sang "God Bless America," and invoked a blessing. And then it came my turn. When someone finished my introduction I heard real applause. People smiled at me as, I think, the hometown boy who had written a book of two. The latest book is a novel THE LONG RIVER HOME, and it tells the story of four generations of family along the Ohio. I read a poem to Sue, my mother-in-law, one about the "business as usual" of the town, then opened the novel to the chapter about school days. Lee and older brother Davey are cast into a shared classroom of third and fourth graders. It's a story about their courage to resist a program on publicly rating the other children for "hygiene" and marking it on the bulletin board. The children had to rate each other, and young Lee finally refuses.
Now, I've read in many places...universites, coffeehouses, libraries, classrooms...and I can tell you this audience of neighbors were with me, listening intently, laughing at times with the story, and just holding the story closely. Applause again at the end, and smiles across some faces that had looked pretty glum before...and across my own face and that of my wife, Ann. And here's the point for fellow writers. As I was shaking hands and leaving...realizing that no one had the spare cash to buy a book if I had even had them...I realized that this in fact was all I could have hoped for. That these people were with me as I wrote that book, this town always inside me, and that there was and is no better way to share than just this...reading a story of a town and its courage and compassion to the people who live there. I was back in the homeplace of so much of my writing and life, and it was good, and yes, very real.
Larry Smith, Sept. 2009
Causes Larry Smith Supports
peace and justice, meditation