"I was never not a writer," novelist Patry Francis said last week. She was speaking about her new book, "The Orphans of Race Point," at the Duxbury town library.
Growing up in Brockton, a down-at-the-heels Massachusetts mill town, Francis recalled visiting the city's only bookstore, a used book shop with the smell of old paper. "Someone told me it was a front for a bookie," she said. To get there, she had to walk underneath a bridge, a dark, unpleasant place with an unsavory reputation. But then she'd hunt through the piles of books and go away delighted with a fifty-cents "prize."
Her father, who had had a difficult life that he survived in part by humor, "regaled" people with his stories. The laughter at the end told him he had succeeded.
And the laughter taught her that a storyteller had "a responsibility to entertain."
She learned about people from family stories, Francis said. She listened to the older members of the family, seeking all the details about the people they remembered and talked about.
"I became a family historian," Francis said. "Begging for old stories. We learn from these stories." Our lives are enlarged.
But stories from life don't get chopped up into ingredients for fiction, like vegetables for a soup. Real life feeds our minds, our imaginations, but all we can say about the stories the novelist tells is they come somewhere inside. Francis said she doesn't draw her stories "from life."
"I wanted to write about connectedness," Francis said at the library talk. Also faith, relationship, hard work, hardship.
Ideas like this raise the interesting, not obvious question, of what a novel is "about."
The natural tendency, even in review journals, is to give a capsule summary of a book's plot. The book is about (we are told) so-and-so who suffers a blow, or falls in love, or finds him or herself thrown into one sort of crisis or another because of this, that, or the other thing. Well, yes... and no.
My attempt to describe "The Orphans of Race Point" -- without too many spoilers -- would go something like this. The daughter of a beloved doctor, a beloved authority figure in a close-knit ethnic community, is drawn while still a child to the victim of a domestic violence tragedy. Nine-year-old Gus Silva has retreated into silence after witnessing the death of his mother at the hands of his father. Hallie Costa's goodness and determination -- she invades his solitude to read him "David Copperfield"-- helps Gus recover and grow into a paragon of compassion. The adult Gus becomes a magnet for both hale and sickly psyches, and eventually he is victimized again by a cruel conspiracy involving a victim of domestic abuse and the evil desire to bring a good man down. Once more Hallie and a now growing, but highly unconventional "family" refuse to give up on him.
So does this summary of what the novel is 'about' explain what kept me up late reading because I had to find out what was going to happen to the characters? What made me feel that this book had heart in it?
Her book is about "everything," Francis said.
Other people write stories that are "a perfect pond," she said. "I write about the ocean... It's messy."
P.S. Here's the link to the newspaper story I wrote about the summer books festival in Duxbury, Mass. Patry Francis was their first author. http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/regionals/south/2014/06/04/duxbury-book-series-turns-pages-all-summer/P3asDWTyoVB4ILhPmCn2GK/story.html