Saturday, December 12, 2009

SETTING & LANDSCAPE: A Season of Gifts

Hi Allyson,
Thanks so much for inviting me to explore A Season of Gifts with you. I love digging into great writing to figure out what makes it tick. Richard Peck gives us lots to think about in his most recent novel, which is set in the same rural Illinois town as two of his most well-known books, A Year Down Yonder (Newbery Medal) and A Long Way from Chicago (Newbery Honor).

Setting plays a critical role in this new book, which relates the experiences of the Barnhart family, who recently moved to town to start a new Methodist church. In fact, the book begins with an image of the house next door to their new home:
“You could see from here the house was haunted. Its crooked old lightning rods pointed bony fingers at the sky. It hadn’t had a lick of paint since VJ Day, maybe the war before that. A porch sagged off one side.” (p. 5)
Writing books often caution writers not to start a novel with setting details. However, those three lines convey a wealth of information that extends beyond the obvious (the house is old). The reference to VJ Day hints at the time period, post-World War II. And words like haunted, crooked, and bony evoke mood and hint at what’s to come.

This spooky, old place belongs to Mrs. Dowdel, and many of the individual settings in the novel take place in her garden or house, which Peck describes in wonderful detail. Here, Bob enters an upstairs bedroom:
“In there, dusty west light filtered through darned curtains. The windowsill was a wasp graveyard. An ancient brass bed angled out of a corner… A darker triangle showed on the wallpaper where a pennant had hung.” (p. 27)
The implication of these details is clear: Mrs. Dowdel hasn’t used this room for a long time. The imagery, though, is fresh. Peck doesn’t rely on a stock layer of dust or a musty smell. He shows us the dead wasps by the window and the space where a pennant once hung. And while the images are unusual, they are also the kind of details that a twelve-year-old boy, our narrator, might notice.

I could continue with more examples of how Peck creates unique individual settings for each scene, but I want to shift to the broader setting of the novel, a small town in the late 1950s. As a work of historical fiction, the time period is a critical element of setting. Interestingly, Peck doesn’t reveal the exact year, 1958, until page 20.

Using the same technique that you discussed in your posting, Allyson, Peck alludes to the time frame in previous pages through details such as the comment about “VJ Day” as well as through specific references to things like Ruth Ann’s hula hoop and doll buggy, the Fuller Brush man, and Rinso soap. Bob’s father feels thankful for their home’s indoor plumbing: many of the houses in town still have “privies.” And Bob notes that everyone else in town has a television antenna. When the year finally appears, it is another one of those A-ha! moments you noted.

Peck continues to refer to the time period throughout the book. Details such as clothing, names, music, and current events remind readers that the story takes place in 1958. Here are just a few examples.
  • Bob’s older sister loves Elvis. When Elvis gets shipped off to Germany, she refuses to go to school.
  • Walking past the Dairy Queen, where all of the town’s teenagers hang out, Bob notes that “The guys were all buzz cuts and ducktails.” (p. 35)
  • The girls’ names are all Fifties-sounding, including Phyllis, Ruth Ann, Barbara Jean, Edna-Earl and Vanette.
These examples, along with many other details about life in the 1950s, appear throughout the novel. They keep the reader grounded in time.

Likewise, Peck keeps the reader grounded in place by layering in details of rural small town life: the train that flashes by each evening, the Homecoming Parade, gossip and rumors that spread like wildfire, church gatherings, tractor pulls, hay rides, and meetings of the Future Farmers of America.

The overall effect of Peck’s individual settings as well as the depth of place and time details reminds me of mystery writer Elizabeth George’s distinction between setting and landscape. In Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, George says
“… setting is where a story takes place—including where each scene takes place—while landscape is much broader than that…. It’s the broad vista into which the writer actually places the individual settings of the novel.”
In another passage, she explains, “Landscape is the total place experience in a novel.” (pp. 29-30)

In reading A Season of Gifts, I get a total place—and time—experience. By evoking mood, focusing on concrete setting details and weaving the narrative throughout the novel with references to place and time period, Peck paints a broad landscape of life in a small, southern Illinois town in the late 1950s.

StorySleuths Tip #33: Think beyond setting alone. Paint a broad landscape for readers by including unique individual settings, concrete details, fresh imagery, and references to the time period and place.