Friday, April 26, 2013


"Can we read this?" Ethan asked the other day, holding up a picture book that's sat on the bookshelf for years.

I looked over at the cover. The book in his hands was not his, or Anna's. It was mine:

Ouch. Ethan didn't realize he'd hit a sore spot.

I've written before about my love affair with the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts, near where I grew up. Four Massachusetts towns were flooded; disappeared under water when the reservoir was built in the 1930s to supply the city of Boston with ample drinking water. We used to picnic by the water and race down the grass slopes of the Goodnough Dike with cardboard boxes like sleds. We'd take walks down to the one abandoned town green above the water line and look at old cellar holes. I've always loved the beauty; the melancholy feeling to the place.

You know how when you're a kid, you have these big dreams? You just know you could be an astronaut, or a famous actress, or write a book. For the longest time I thought I'd be an author, but as time went by I realized I wasn't much of a book writer. I preferred short, topical pieces. Except when it came to the Quabbin.

I always thought if I had one book in me, it was about the Quabbin. I've had an idea percolating for years about an adolescent girl, growing up in the years that the towns began to slip away. I could see it all play out. I could feel her pain as she watched childhood slip away, figuratively and literally, as her town was stripped of trees and the familiar buildings were plowed over or moved elsewhere. I had the idea 15 years ago, and began doing research, but then, you know. Life came along. Kids came along. I always figured I could sit down and pick the whole thing up again someday.

A few weeks ago, I finally decided to buckle down and start writing. I was excited. I was inspired. I went online and was

...shocked to discover someone had already written my book. Eleven years ago. Exact same story. Same reservoir and dying town. Same adolescent girl.

I stared at the glowing online reviews and told myself all the things that we tell our kids, that of course I could still write a book and I shouldn't give up on a dream. But the realistic adult voice overpowered that it just wasn't the same now. Someone had gone before me; someone who, if I was honest, probably wrote it better than I could have. And so I stopped and tip-toed away from the idea I'd held close for so long.

And now Ethan stood with this picture book I'd bought long ago about the flooding of the towns, "Letting the Swift River Go." It's a beautiful book. It's one of the most beautiful children's book's I've ever read.

It's also long, and I thought the ideas would be too complex for him.

"Are you sure you want to read this?" I asked.

"Yes! Please read it!" he begged. And so I started with the story, and waited for him to lose interest.

We got to the page where the people are learning their towns will have to go.
So it was voted in Boston to drown our towns
that the people in the city might drink.
"I don't want them to do that!" Ethan exclaimed, upset. I looked at him, amazed. He was getting this?
Then the governor sent his "woodpeckers"
to clear the scrub and brush,
to cut down all the trees: the maples and elms,
the willows and scyacmores, and the great spreading oaks.
They were stacked like drinking straws along the roads,
then hauled away.
Ethan's eyes were filling. "I want to take my light saber and destroy them for doing that." I kept reading and as I did, I could feel my throat catch:
Our houses came next.
Some were bulldozed.
One great push and they went over
after one or two centuries
of standing strong
against wind and snow and rain. 

"They can't do that! They have to ask first!" Ethan was saying indignantly. The tears were clouding my eyes, and I didn't know if it was because again, this was the one story I really felt above all others and had dreamed of writing about and wondered now if I ever should, or if they were for the people of those long ago towns, watching their memories sink under the waters, or if they were joyful tears, because this boy who has trouble with critical thinking and understanding complex themes got this one, this precious backdrop to my growing up years.
I think it was a little bit of everything.
Sometimes dreams have to be adjusted. Sometimes we let go and it hurts...while we simultaneously discover other beautiful truths.
Ethan went upstairs to get changed. We were headed outside for a walk, to drink in the beauty of a clear spring day.
Author's Note from Letting Swift River Go
The Quabbin Reservoir is near my house,
one of the largest bodies of fresh water in New England.
It is a lovely wilderness;
eagles soar overhead and deer mark out their paths.
But once it was a low-lying valley called Swift River,
surrounded by rugged hills.
There were towns in the valley filled with hardworking folks
whose parents and grandparents had lived there all their lives.
Then, between 1927 and 1946, all the houses
and churches and schools -- the markers of their lives --
were gone forever under the rising waters.
The drowing of the Swift River towns
to create the Quabbin was not a unique event.
The same story -- only with different names --
has occurred all over the world
wherever nearby large cities have had powerful thirsts.
Such reservoirs are trade-offs, which like all trades,
are never easy, never perfectly fair.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is so poignant, D. You are a beautiful writer.
I really, really, really think you should write that book. Maybe now is the time to write it and bring to it everything else you now have to share, as a wife and mother.