A HOMETOWN, REAL AND FICTIONAL
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by Ruth Doan MacDougall
January 31, 2015
On a wall beside my desk in my so-called office (the garret in our house), there’s a map I drew of the fictional town of Gunthwaite, New Hampshire, the hometown of Henrietta Snow and her friends in my novel “The Cheerleader” and its Snowy Series sequels.
A fictional hometown, inspired by my real hometown.
I was born in the Laconia hospital in 1939. My parents brought me home to their chicken farm in Belmont, which I remember mostly through their tales about it, because we moved to Laconia when I was three, after my sister, Penny, was born. We lived in an apartment on Academy Street until 1951, when my parents bought a house on Gilford Avenue. My father worked at Scott & Williams, becoming the foreman of the heat-treating department. After work and on weekends he wrote short stories and novels, and he also did a lot of hiking, which later led to his writing two hiking guidebooks. When Penny and I were in high school, our mother went to work as a secretary at what was then Nighswander, Lord & Bownes.
So Laconia is my hometown. Also my husband’s. Don and I met in high school; he was in the class of 1955, I in the class of 1957. After college, we moved around, Massachusetts, England, various towns in New Hampshire. In 1976 we felt an urge to return to the Lakes Region, and we settled in Center Sandwich, with Laconia handily nearby.
Living amid your roots means there’s no escape from the past, because all the places abound with memories and associations. However, we novelists ultimately live in imaginary places, no matter how real the original inspiration was, and we’re apt to know the geography of imaginary towns and the floor plans of imaginary houses more vividly than our actual surroundings, at least for the duration of the novel we’re writing.
The classic rule for writers is: Write about what you know. Thus, of course, Laconia has found its way into my novels in various guises. (So have lakes—there’s always at least one lake in them.) And here’s the fun of it for writers: we can rearrange, raze, resurrect; we can re-create a town!
For the past twenty years I’ve been updating my father’s hiking books. Last year I finished the latest editions, and after that meticulous, precise nonfiction work, checking everything from mileage to summit views (trees grow), I turned my full attention back to fiction and heard myself say, as I always do after finishing new editions, “This is so much easier! I can make it all up!”
Thus on Gunthwaite’s Main Street there’s still a fictional version of the old O’Shea’s department store, because I couldn’t bear to tear it down. I still get heartsick when I think of the loss of the historic O’Shea’s building. Indeed, there is no urban renewal in Gunthwaite’s downtown. All of the old Main Street still exists. And the fictional dairy bar inspired by Weeks Dairy Bar is still flourishing. However, there have had to be changes over the years of the Snowy Series, so although that fictional O’Shea’s building still stands, it’s broken up into three businesses. The fictional restaurant where Snowy waitressed in the 1950s, as I did at Keller’s Restaurant, is gone, as are Woolworth’s and other stores lamented by Snowy and her friends. The fictional movie theater is for sale.
Gunthwaite High School has grown—but it doesn’t (yet) have LHS’s new football stadium. When the cheerleaders in the series reminisce about doing cartwheels on the fifty-yard line, there’s still the same old football field behind the school.
On two occasions, Don and I have been guides on minibus tours of Laconia. This was quite an emotional experience, nostalgic, hilarious, reflective, as we showed fans of the series our real hometown
Originally printed in a New Hampshire newspaper, The Citizen of Laconia.©2015 by The Citizen. Our thanks for permission to reprint so that fans residing beyond the paper's circulation area may enjoy the article.