Roberts’ novel set in familiar territory
Wilson Roberts of Greenfield with his book. Recorder/Paul Franz
Wilson Roberts of Greenfield. Recorder/Paul Franz
The setting of the runaway short story that turned into Wilson Roberts’ 770-page sixth novel seems more than vaguely familiar.
There’s Grahamville, the county seat, with its community college, GCC, that’s the county seat of Wessex County in western Massachusetts and lies just across the Connecticut River from the 19th century industrial village, Eagle Falls.
Not far away is the hilltown, Keetsville, where most of the action in “All That Endures” takes place, with an “intentional community” set up in the 1960s by two west Texas Hicks brothers with their wives, who are cousins both with the name Gwendolyn.
And there are other allusions, like the French King Bridge, from which one character takes a leap.
“Wessex County really is a lot like Franklin County. It’s almost like an alternate universe,” says Roberts, whose sixth novel is an exploration of characters who got away from him and turned out 2½ years later to be in this doorstop of a novel set partly in Random County, N.C., but mostly in a place that manages to sound a lot like our surroundings, with locals who have names like Shippee, Deane and Dennison.
“I was trying to integrate my experiences, both in the Carolina mountains and here, into some sort of coherent story that I sort of lost control of, as you can see,” says Roberts, 76, former English instructor at GCC — the Greenfield one. Wessex County he admits “must have boundaries very close to Franklin County’s boundaries. The reason I created Wessex County was to free me up from being too rigidly confined to Franklin County, Greenfield and the hilltowns. I didn’t want any readers to say, ‘But that’s not the way it is!’”
Roberts, who came to teach at Greenfield in 1970, a few years after GCC, like its parallel-universe counterpart, was founded, set out to write his story based on two real-life brothers he knew from Waco, Texas, exploring the relationship between the locals and the new arrivals in the 1960s, a time of change and turmoil.
Unlike, say, the communes that established themselves in Franklin County in the 1960s and in neighboring southern Vermont, the fictitious Walden Brook Farm was an “intentional community” based on the economic theories of 19th Century writer Henry George.
“This group is not made up of beatniks, they’re not hippies. They’re somewhere in between, more intentionally focused,” says Wilson, describing elder brother Brud, a Columbia University doctoral program dropout and his “outlaw” brother, Reggie, for whom he’s an anchor.
Wilson, who after moving from the area around Boone, N.C., and Saranac, N.Y., landed first in Halifax, Vt., and then in Guilford, Vt., where he and other family members swam in Keets Brook. He sets his novel’s action in Keetsville, where the story unfolds between the traditional population and the newcomers in this community, which might or might not be similar to Packer Corners, set up in Guilford in the late 1960s.
“The novel traces how these two communities dance around each other with a great deal of suspicion, especially on the part of the hilltown people, and a great deal of wariness on the part of intentional community,” he says.
That begins to erode, of course, through the actions of people like the owner of the general store, who extends credit to Walden Brook Farm members.
Meanwhile, Keetsville native and gun dealer Leo Dennison, “a really hardcore, hard-rock one-eyed Yankee who does not see things three dimensionally, a former selectman who’s held every office in town ... is a cantankerous pain in the ass,” says Roberts, seated in the living room of his Chestnut Hill home. But Dennison’s also the first one to jump in to help a Walden Brook member when she’s in trouble. And when Reggie finds an old revolver in a trunk in the barn attic, he and Dennison bond over their shared skill at shooting rats for sport.
Greenfield, Franklin County and other places like Amherst and Northampton make cameo appearances in this novel as does South Guilford near the Vermont line, along with the Hampshire County line and Mount Greylock off in the distance.
“Graham’s a good place to work,” says one character.
“”It’s a funny town, unsure of itself. Like with our tower on Poet’s Hill.”
“The locals think it puts them in the same game as Greenfield, over in Franklin County. In fact, it was built in self-conscious imitation of Greenfield’s tower, but it’s smaller and on a lower hill than Greenfield’s. It symbolizes the relationship between the two counties and their shire towns. Wessex County is poorer than Franklin County, its cutting tool industries, like its land just less productive enough to give its people a sense of ever falling short, thus more imitative in their attempts to compete.”
And if that’s not enough to give pause, there’s this description of Eagle Mills:
“Its gritty streets and foul-smelling Industrial Canal in stark contrast to the New England town in which it is located. Ashmont is a town of sprawling farms and several hamlets and villages. Ashmont Center looks like a calendar photo with its town hall and Grange, the Congregational, Episcopal and Unitarian churches ...”
Although it may not be easy to distinguish this fantasy Franklin County from the real thing, Roberts says, “It’s not confusing to me at all.”
Shades of Greenfield turn up in his other novels, including “Incident on Tuckerman Court” (2010). But don’t expect it in his forthcoming novel, “Murder at Coral Bay,” which is set on the Caribbean island of St. John, where he and his wife, Diane Esser, share a second home.
In Wilson’s 2011 novel, “Borrowed Trouble,” Greenfield turns up as the western Massachusetts setting, with passages like this:
“Grady looked at the Candlelight Motel across Route 2 from the Big Y parking lot. Empty for years, it was a crash pad for the homeless and the druggies.
‘When are they finally going to build the Wal-Mart there?’”
Like his other 2011 novel, “Poet’s Seat,” it rings familiar, with a setting of Graham, in Wessex County and its tower, named for poet Ellsworth Buell.
Roberts is quick to admit that his six novels, available at World Eye Bookshop and Boswell’s Books in Shelburne Falls, as well as on Amazon, are far from best sellers. But he says, “It keeps me off the streets. And out of politics.”
Roberts was on the Greenfield Town Council for a decade and was recently appointed to the town Planning Board before his appointment was rescinded by Mayor William Martin. He credits his involvement in politics — especially his five years attending town meetings in Guilford, for helping him write about the political involvement of his novel’s characters.
“It gave me a little more insight into the mechanics of how town government works, and how there’s sort of an amusing nature and easy accessibility to it,” says Roberts, for whom there’s another “alternate universe” connection between fact and fiction:
His publisher, Virginia-based Wilder Publications, is owned by Warren Lapine, a former resident of the real Greenfield.
You can reach Richie Davis at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269