Come Back takes place in the small town of Freedom, Iowa. So where is Freedom? Beats me! I made it up!
Sort of. I transplanted my memories of a town – Utica, Illinois, population 1200, near the farm where I grew up – one state further west. Names are tricky in writing. If I used the name Utica, people might assume I meant its namesake, Utica, New York – an entirely different kind of place.
I knew I wanted the setting to be in America’s heartland, a place where values tend toward the traditional. In early chapters, I called the town Rutland because that was another tiny burg near my home. But writer friends assumed I meant Rutland, Vermont. Argh!
So I cast about for another town name and landed on Freedom. There are lots of little towns called Freedom too, including a township in my home county. But would most people picture a place they already knew when they read about a town called Freedom? I hoped not. And the name seemed to fit where salt-of-the-earth, do-for-yourselves, independent-minded people might live.
But it had to have a river. I was thinking of the Illinois of course, picturing Nate gazing across at bluffs like Starved Rock State Park from his home perched high on the north bank. I don’t know Iowa rivers so I consulted a map until I located a tributary of the Iowa River southwest of Iowa City, and that’s where I put down my push-pin.
Transplanting Utica to Iowa was no big feat. I know the town has changed since I spent much time there, but I relied on memory to place the Community Center at one end of Main Street and the old Flat Iron building at the other end.
Flat Iron was what my family called a limestone outcropping deep in the timber alongside the Pecumsagum creek which flowed lazily several miles from our place into the Illinois. In the spring, water ran into our creek about half a mile from our house. While I rarely saw more than a trickle there, it must have raged some time over the millennia to create a narrow gorge. Flat Iron was a result of that erosion. It stood some fifty or more feet above our creek on the southeast corner of the little gorge, a wedge of stone accessible by a narrow path that connected the outcropping to the main bluff.
There were photographs of my parents sitting out on Flat Iron, but I was strictly forbidden to venture out there. Of course I did. Once. A quarter century or more erosion meant the path was little more than a foot wide with sharp drops on either side. Even in my most daredevil teens, it was a terrifying trek to cross onto the relative safety of the iron’s wedge. And exhilarating.
I digress – because our Flat Iron has a story all its own which will be partially told in my next novel Home Place. Stay tuned.
What struck me about downtown Utica, though, was that there was a building named
after this mystical place in our own timber. Nor did I understand the name ‘Flat Iron.’ My mother used a steam iron that didn’t look flat to me. Utica’s Flat Iron building didn’t look like our Flat Iron either. But it was distinctive, and with enough imagination, you could see how its triangular shape anchored a wedge-shaped block. Sort of. As an adult, I’ve seen New York City’s Flat Iron Building and know that Wickipedia lists over twenty-five Flat Iron buildings in the US – not including Utica’s. Who knew? Not me as a kid!
But can you see why I had to re-create the Flat Iron Building in Freedom, Iowa? Since I didn’t remember the Victorian turret on Utica’s Flat Iron, I imagined it differently and as the perfect spot for Brent and Matthew’s trendy cafe – just one of the reasons Vi found her old home town so befuddling. “The town I grew up in was the dullest, the stodgiest, the most narrow-minded backwater little hole in the universe. But today, everywhere I turn I find the most surprising, talented, professional people – here in Freedom!… When did folks here get so interesting?”
I’ve lived near or in small cities and towns most of my life, and Vi’s discovery reflects my own. I went to a large college because ‘I’d had small towns.’ I, like Vi and probably most young folks, wanted a taste of a bigger world. But like Nate, I found my way back to a smaller, more intimate community – and learned that small in population does not mean small-minded or unsophisticated.
In the small city I live in now, I can – occasionally – go to the grocery store and see no one I know. I need not live in my neighbors’ pockets or know every last thing about everybody in town. But I can – and usually do – encounter folks I know and like as I go about my errands and outings. I can – and do – feel connected.
Vi’s connections in Freedom were both strong and strained when she was young. Her life after she fled has left her feeling slightly un-tethered – though she doesn’t fully realize it. To have her see her old home town in a different light – as a place where she might yet feel grounded – was something I wanted for her. Yet another reason I created Freedom, Iowa. For Vi.