The Power of Returning Home, in Life and in Writing

Cover detail from The Captain’s Daughter by Meg Mitchell Moore

Editor's Note:

Meg Mitchell Moore is the author of the novels The Admissions, The Arrivals, and So Far Away. She worked for several years as a journalist for a variety of publications. Her newest novel, The Captain’s Daughter, will be released July 18th, and centers on a woman who returns to her hometown in coastal Maine. Here, Meg talks about the significance of going home, and why it makes for a great plot.

In my opinion one of the most memorable chapters in Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible is the one where Lucy Barton returns to her hometown of Amgash, Illinois, to confront—and also very emphatically to not confront—her relationship with her damaged siblings and their abusive childhood. Then there’s Anna Quindlan’s beautiful Miller’s Valley. Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You. John Cusack’s hitman Martin Blank in the film Grosse Pointe Blank, reexamining his life through the lens of a high school reunion.

Why does homecoming pique the imagination of so many novelists and filmmakers?  When we come home, we put the life we’ve built since leaving up against the geography—the town, the house, the backyard swing, the hamster graveyard, the bedroom—that molded and shaped us, and we see how firmly it stands up. Returning home provides the ultimate yardstick to measure how we’ve come out in our adult lives. Flip the yardstick, and we can measure how our hometown—or city, or suburb—has fared in our absence. Both exercises can be by turns useful, depressing, hilarious and nostalgic, which makes them fertile ground for fiction. Ha! Says the formerly bullied, locker-stuffed, late-to-puberty science whiz who just sold his fourteenth biotech startup for millions. Ha, you guys, look at me now! And, equally, the former football star, perhaps now thick around the neck and the middle, twice-divorced, semi-employed: Don’t look at me now. Remember me how I was.

I say all of this as though I know what I’m talking about. I don’t. As one of two daughters of my career Naval officer father, I moved every few years for most of my life until college. The question, “Where’d you grow up?” when volleyed to me in polite conversation, requires a bit of a convoluted explanation. I don’t have a hometown. I don’t actually know what it’s like to return, changed or unchanged, to a place where I spent the first eighteen years of my life. I never came back for a college break to a familiar bedroom whose walls were home to childhood posters with curling corners, whose mirror held a tenacious dried prom corsage in its corner. I hear that it is a custom in many parts of America for people to get together on the night before Thanksgiving at a local watering hole with old high school friends. That sounds like heaps of fun, but I have never attended such a gathering—my high school friends hail from two different schools, and neither is a place where I ever spend a Thanksgiving. I had a home to go to anytime I wanted one, of course, because parents and siblings and pets constitute a home. But I didn’t have one home.

I’m stating, not complaining. There were benefits. What I lacked in cohesiveness, I gained in flexibility. I am a textbook introvert by nature, and I’ll never be the loudest one at the party, but drop me next to any stranger and I can strike up a conversation, excavating resumes, biographies, movie tastes or mental Rolodexes to find some common ground. My observational muscles, arguably the most important for a novelist, are strong from years of heavy lifting. When you are the newest person in the school, you tend to hang back and watch.

The main character in The Captain’s Daughter, who returns to her Maine lobster fishing village after years away, is a native daughter who by choice and circumstance, if not necessarily geography, is living far from home. I lived in a town similar to the one depicted in this book for only one year before I left for college, and I was a newcomer, an outsider. It’s likely that the topic of homecoming is a compelling one for me because it’s also a foreign one. Who’d you leave behind, and why, and how deep do any lingering resentments go? Does the town’s refusal to change show how much you have, or is the opposite true? What responsibilities do the leavers have to the leavees? These questions are endlessly fascinating to me.

With the exception of one year when we accidentally moved to California, my husband and three children and I have lived in the same Massachusetts town for a full decade, since I was pregnant with my third daughter. This is the place I’ve lived longest in my whole life, and the place my children call home. Me too: finally, belatedly, I have a hometown.

This past spring my eldest daughter had to complete an eighth grade social studies project on civic engagement. As I read through her personal essay on identity, I was struck by, even proud of, how important the town she has grown up in is to hers. Like most parents I dread the day when my children will leave home. But they’ll come back from time to time. There might be drama and nostalgia and memories and regrets; there will probably be a high school reunion or two. I hope there’s a pre-Thanksgiving gathering. And I can’t wait to see where the plot goes from here.