Kosovo. Littleton. Washington. Beijing. Northampton. Northampton?
At a time when crisis and catastrophe make other venues more compelling, why focus on this Western Massachusetts town-- so peaceful, so little noticed, so sane?
It wasn't always that way. Once Northampton was a way station for the famous. In the 19th century the view from nearby Mount Holyoke of the town and the lush Connecticut Valley was considered so spectacular that artists, writers and thousands of other tourists trekked to the summit. In 1805, two Irish Catholics traveling near the Protestant-dominated town were hanged for a murder they likely didn't commit. A crowd estimated at 15,000 came to watch.
But now Northampton is known mostly as the home of Smith College, a picture-postcard sidewalk cafe-strewn, crafts boutique and bookstore-brimming tourist Mecca. Lots of nose rings. An easy, tolerant atmosphere. Beautiful old houses and tree-lined streets. So why would Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder turn to such a placid place for his new book, Hometown?
Oddly enough, the idea came to him on a trip to Haiti, where he was writing an article for The New Yorker magazine. "I found myself in a place that was really kind of appalling," he explained in a recent interview, "where virtually nothing worked....And it seemed to me that a town, a workable town, was a precious sort of thing. And I knew this town, Northampton, right near where I lived that seemed to work very well indeed. And I wondered why?"
But as he continued his research into this town with a competent and honest government, good municipal services and a cheerful, sunny image, Kidder also discovered a place with the same problems of crime and drugs and underemployment and budget disputes, the same citizens with personal terrors that are found in every American city. "Northampton struck me as an atypical town at first. And then it struck me as atypical only in the sense that it had...so many of the features of other places...all collected in this one rather small place."
Kidder introduces us to lots of characters: the feisty mayor, the lawyer battling obsessive-compulsive disorder, the Smithie on welfare. But mostly we see through the eyes of one of Northampton's finest, Police Officer Tommy O'Connor "He grew up in the town, he loved the town, and he always wanted to be a cop," Kidder learned. And with O'Connor, Kidder takes us into housing projects and drug dens. We learn of O'Connor and his wife Jean's struggle to conceive a child. And against that backdrop, thstory of a man who longs to become a father, who daydreams about the love he would lavish on a child, we are hit with a chilling reality.
O'Connor's closest childhood friend, a fellow cop, is charged with molesting his own daughter. The man ultimately pleads guilty in a technical maneuver that allows him to continue to deny the charges. But through O'Connor, Kidder makes us understand how fragile our perceptions can be, and yet how we can ultimately recover from even the most profound disappointment.
Kidder says he was not trying to write about Everytown, but a place where families are still important, a place that wants to be good, a place, he writes, "that shelters individual lives."
Kidder's talent, as he's shown in books like The Soul of a New Machine, House, and Among School Children, is in culling out the fascinating details of daily life. That's why though Northampton is not enmeshed in the cosmic life and death issues that are propelling other places into the headlines, it's well worth a visit to Tracy Kidder's Hometown.