Thursday, February 18, 2010
When Theme and Setting Intertwine
Do I agree with this opinion? Not entirely, but I like to read about a setting so vivid that it’s becomes a character in the book—one that has an impact on the story and in the end helps illuminate the theme of the book.
With that in mind, let me tell you about winter in Pittsburgh.
First of all, we’ve had enough snow this year that my husband broke down and looked at airfare to San Juan. (He looked, that’s all—didn’t buy!) He snapped when the pile where we toss the snow from the driveway buried the nearby birdfeeder.
The snow is bad enough, but now comes (cue Darth Vadar music) pothole season.
Pittsburgh has more miles of bad road and bridge decks than most cities in the world. Our roads climb steep, icy hills and dead-end at weed-infested vacant lots into which dirty piles of snow are repeatedly plowed. Our valiant road crews spread tons of salt and cinders that eat away at asphalt and concrete so that potholes get a foothold early and then spread like virulent cancer. If you take your eyes off the street for a second--blam!—you can hit a crater the size of your sofa. The guys in the garage laugh as they hoist your car up to look at the damage underneath, but they’re careful to make sure you’re safe when you pull out onto the street again.
Two years ago, it was cheerful laughter in just such a workplace—combined with the pride those tire guys took in their jobs--that got me thinking.
People in Pittsburgh take their work seriously. Hot steel mills aren’t so distant in our past that we can’t put just as much muscle and sweat and commitment into the work we do now. And yet we’re soft-hearted enough to help me with my alignment and Mrs. Donatelli carry her groceries across the icy supermarket parking lot.
Years before we moved here, my husband and I drove our minivan to the city to see a traveling Broadway musical. We had our two tween daughters in the vehicle---all dressed up in their white tights and mary janes. But they had wanted to wear their dress-up coats over their outfits, not warm jackets. We hit a pothole on the highway and immediately knew we had a flat tire. With the wind whipping icy snow against the windshield, we pulled over. As cars whipped by and my husband—dressed in a suit--pulled the jack from the van, I dialed AAA on my cell phone and chivvied the kids out into the snow so the vehicle wouldn’t be too heavy to jack up.
A minute later, a guy wearing a couple of sweatshirts and grease-stained overalls pulled over and insisted on changing the tire for us. While he worked, two more strangers stopped and asked if we needed help. To me, that’s Pittsburgh. Guys who will stop and change a tire in a blizzard for a family of dingalings who didn’t bring their warm coats.
I try to communicate that good-natured, workingclass heroism in my new book, OUR LADY OF IMMACULATE DECEPTION. (Due in stores—egad!—in two weeks!) I’d been struggling for years to figure out what kind of story might best be set in Pittsburgh. I thought long and hard about the social issues I could capture using this setting. What kind of characters would best illustrate the values this city embodies? I came up with tough-talking, hard-working Roxy Abruzzo who runs a salvage business out of her Monster Truck, but also helps friends in trouble—particularly friends who can’t go to the police for justice. She takes the reader on the kind of tour of Pittsburgh that the guidebooks don’t feature.
Does the setting fit the themes of Roxy’s story? I’ll be interested to see if you think I pulled it off. Come back and let me know.
Meanwhile, tell me about other books in which the theme and setting are intertwined. I’m thinking specifically of Richard Price’s LUSH LIFE, a book that captures New York so accurately you feel as if you’re peeling back the layers of the neighborhood just as the characters slowly reveal one nuance after another. And Denise Mina’s Glasgow is vivid in her book THE DEAD HOUR, a story in which the protagonist’s hard won successes at work and in life seem ideally set in that tough city.
What about you? Any books with vivid settings come to mind?
Visit Nancy's wonderful Web site: http://www.nancymartinmysteries.com/