Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Capturing Place

The painting of Scotland is on the cover of Susan McCallum-Smith's new book, Slipping the Moorings. You can hear the author tonight at the Roland Park branch of the Enoch Pratt Library.

I grew up in a small town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains. My father taught history at a college and the four of us—mom, dad, my older brother, and I—lived nearby on an acre of wooded and hilly land. It was a magical place for a kid, with its hollow boxwood bushes converted into forts and the deep and mossy woods to explore. Tinker Creek flowed out of the mountains and edged along our backyard, providing miles of sandy beds to investigate. There is something about growing up in the south (and growing up the daughter of a history professor with a knack for weaving a good narrative) that imbues you with a reverence for stories and a kind of aching nostalgia for place.

It's no wonder, then, that I have an affinity for fiction with a strong tie to the landscape. Susan McCallum-Smith, a Baltimore writer by way of Glasgow, Scotland, recently released her first book of short essays, Slipping the Moorings and I was immediately drawn in. The writing jumps from Scotland to Mexico to New York and Canada and in each story, place is a main character (with the exception, perhaps, of "Housekeeper," which is very much character-driven).

In a darkly funny and tragic story about life in a Glasgow high rise, the main character dreams she is a child again flying above the land below:

She swoops high, high over the top of the high rise, and down its other side, brushing the tips of those red and gold and orange leaves all stirring together in the park, skirting the gravy-brown burn, and the Maxwell's prize-winning Highland cows that stop chewing and lift their marmalade heads to watch her.

In a few brief sentences you are transported to that topography. It becomes personalized—those aren't just any cows, they are the Maxwell's prize-winning cows—and the choice of "marmalade" to describe their heads adds to the wonderful image of them lazily chewing their cud and eyeing this child as she soars overhead.

In the title story "Slipping the Moorings," an ex-pat son returns from America to visit his father. The son struggles with the competing nature of two places: home in America and his familial home on the shores of Scotland:

I left him refilling his pipe and went outside to look at the stars. There were no stars. Low clouds smothered the peninsular. I tasted their thick dampness. I walked away from the cottage until its lights cast no relief on the heaviness around me and stopped when my stumbling was liable to lead to hurt. The sea breathed behind me while the soil sucked at my feet and swallowed the soles of my leather shoes. The nearest a man can come to death is to stand at night on our land. I'd forgotten how much I missed it in the constant brightness of America, where the day's end brings not true darkness but merely the temporary absence of light.

McCallum-Smith's focus on place does not mean that the people who populate Slipping the Moorings are pale sketches. Quite the opposite. They are strong characters inhabiting a rich topography, a keen reminder that we are products of both where we are now and where we have been. Place, even in its absence, defines us.

McCallum-Smith (pictured above) reads from Slipping the Moorings tonight at the Enoch Pratt's Roland Park Branch at 6:30 PM.