Essays, Interviews & More

The Passion of Place, The Place of Passion

by Robert Goolrick

Thirty years ago, a friend of mine sat down and told me a story, a long story, about something that had happened to him as a child. It took him an hour to tell it, and it was the best story I have ever heard. The story, told over and over through the years, had taken on an element of myth, and in the days that followed, my friend took me to many of the places in which the events of the story had taken place, walked me through the countryside of his personal mythology, the defining moment of his life, which had happened decades before.
            In those places, I could see my friend as a child; I could look through his eyes, feel what it must have been like to stand in his shoes and witness events that continued, after all the years, to mystify him, events that still created the boundaries of the country in which he lived and worked.
            The town where the story took place is in a foreign country, and the qualities of the landscape and the light are very particular to that place. The particulars of that place are very different from the country in which I spent my own childhood, but in the vivacity of his telling, I knew completely what it was like to be him, at that age in that place
            Over the years, I’ve told the story many times to many people. They’ve all agreed that the story is a magnificent one, and I knew that eventually I would have to write it down and tell it to as many people as I could. It is a mysterious story, and it has taken me many years to begin to understand the motives of the people involved, why they did what they did, and how all of these events must have profoundly affected the course of my friend’s life.
            Heading Out to Wonderful is the result of three decades of meditation on these events, on this one story. It is, in its essential elements, a true story. Of course, as the opening sentence of the novel states, all memory is fiction. We have to fill in details and make the story real for ourselves in order to bring to it a deeper understanding
            I have set the story not in the foreign country where my friend lives but in Virginia, where I spent my own childhood. It is a story of passion and place, because the place is so dear to me, for one thing, but also because the big things that happen in our lives don’t happen in a vacuum. Our memory of them is colored and enhanced by the marriage of event and countryside, event and weather or season.
            I wish everybody could have grown up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia as I did. Southerners are born into and tied forever to two things: time and place. We are our history, for good or ill, the history of our family, the history of our lovely and tragic land. We are born into both beauty and guilt, and we live with a sense of loss that never abates. The ground on which we walk; on which so many died, so many were bound into slavery; on which so much devotion and dereliction have been lavished, give our own little knot in the string of time a beauty and a benediction that we cannot escape.
            The passions we feel are inextricably linked to the place in which we feel them, and I hope that this novel conveys the importance of that fact. In A Reliable Wife, the setting was austere and bitter cold. In this one, it is lush and effulgent, and the complexities of the story echo that. It is about the homes we build on the ground we are born to, homes we are too often forced to leave too soon. Childhood, for me, is one such home. Love is another. We come and go, events occur, but the land abides. The land endures forever.
            And, every now and then, the best story you’ve ever heard comes along, and you are blessed to live with it, and the people in it, in the country in which it dwells. I hope I have done justice to the story, and I hope, in telling it, that I have made some measure of peace with the land that has nurtured me and torn out my heart for every day of my life.
            So, here it is: Heading Out to Wonderful. A man arrives in Brownsburg, Virginia, in the summer of 1948. He brings with him two suitcases. In the first are his clothes and a fine set of butcher knives. The second suitcase is filled with money. A lot of money. He sets foot on the ground of Virginia, in the countryside where I live now, and the story that I first heard thirty years ago begins to breathe.