Wednesday, September 2, 2009

When Setting is Character (Guest Post: Mattox Roesch)

Mattox Roesch wrote this piece for me when I asked him to write about the cultural milieu of his book, Sometimes We're Always Real Same-Same, which takes place in a tiny town in Alaska. Talk about a town being a character--I felt completely enveloped by Unalakleet and its unique citizens as I read the book. Roesch's essay about his adopted hometown filled me with nostalgia for a tiny place I've never been to, except through his fiction.

Our town is getting paved roads. “Finally,” some people say. Kids carrying skateboards to the only skateable square of concrete have told me, “Man, I can’t wait!” And when they make plans with me to skate some busted piece of something, I tell them, (in my best attempt at not sounding like a man-child), “Dude, I’m there.” But I’ve heard a handful of less enthusiastic reactions to the paved roads rumor. Some Why?’s. Some Big Deal’s. And a whole bunch of I’ll believe it when I see it’s. And I can understand the cynicism as well.

For hundreds of years, since before the first Russian-American trading post opened up in Unalakleet in the 1830’s, since before a tuberculosis outbreak wiped out many of the townsfolk, since before the village was on the south side of the river, people have existed here without pavement. It was one of the first things I noticed as a newcomer six years ago—gravel roads. And recently, while flipping through the pages of my Unalakleet-based novel, looking for passages to read at my upcoming event at Annie Bloom’s Books, I noticed, There’s a lot of gravel in this book. And there is. There is a lot in town, too. On dry days, every pickup or four-wheeler sends a cloud of gravel through every screen window and every bike-riding adolescent’s lungs.

This whole thing is interesting to me because I grew up accepting pavement as a given. But my wife, on the other hand, grew up here. She remembers when there was no TV in Unalakleet, and then just one channel, and now, satellite dishes bolted to almost every home. She remembers dialing only four-digit phone numbers, and she’s only thirty-two years old. Her gram remembers a time before vehicles. Her gram remembers hunting and fishing and collecting everything the family ate. “Progress” has happened a lot more quickly here than in the rest of the country. And people have experienced many gravel-road-type rumors, and many gravel-road-type “improvements.” It is a major part of the village’s collective experience—this thing we call “progress”—and now I’m here to experience a part of the excitement and the ambivalence of modernization.

My wife’s gram is very quick to praise innovations like the washing machine and refrigerator/freezer and stove. She’s told me of how much time and energy subsistence living took, especially without those amenities. But these days, she doesn’t have an opinion about paved roads, because her memory is failing. She often asks for her mother and confuses her daughters for her sisters. But, despite her Alzheimer’s, she still loves to laugh. Last weekend we were all picnicking together upriver, and as the food was settling and the stories started flying, one cousin shared an anecdote that sent my wife and all the aunties laughing hysterically. Gram didn’t hear the story, because her hearing is bad, but she busted out laughing with all the ladies anyway. Gram said, “I don’t even know why you’re laughing, but I laugh along with you.” We’ve all heard this a hundred times. We all laughed anyway and kept telling more stories.

Our town is getting paved roads. But despite the pavement, I think progress is still happening here all the time. It’s just like anywhere else.

Roesch will be doing a reading in Portland at Annie Bloom's bookstore on Thursday at 7:30. If you're in the area and haven't read Sometimes We're Always Real Same-Same (released today!), I highly recommend heading over there and getting a taste of the prose. Wish I could go!


  1. It wasn't all that long ago when we lived in "Lower Alabama" and you only had to dial 5 digits to call someone locally. Small towns like Unalakleet always sound romantic to me when I read about them.

  2. I lived in BFE Oregon as a kid (in the 70s) and remember 4 digit phone numbers. I have fond memories of that town.

    Like Kathy, I love small towns. Unalakleet sounds wonderful...although I bet it's pretty brutal in winter!

  3. I've mostly lived in highly populated areas ... my first area code split was when I was about eight. And yet, I'm never convinced that I would have wanted to live anywhere else. Still, it's interesting to hear about the "other" places. Thanks for running this piece and I will get to reading this book sometime soon!

  4. Just finished the book, so I loved reading this background. Unk was definitely my favorite "character" in the novel.