Cocalico Corner: Two tales of two valleys

By on April 27, 2016

Every now and then a book speaks to one’s own life and times.

This confluence of personal fact and literary fiction has happened to readers for generations, for as long as the written word has been put to stone or paper.

That little, no, let’s call it big “Ding!” happened to me about a week ago when I started to read Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna Quindlen’s latest novel, “Miller’s Valley.”

I was among the more than 600 who attended the April 14 luncheon and/or “conversation” with Quindlen as part of the 16th Annual Author Luncheon sponsored by the Council of Friends of Lancaster County Libraries. And like most, I walked away with a copy of “Miller’s Valley” intent on reading it after hearing Quindlen’s insights. (The event was part of the author’s book tour for this, her eighth novel.)

In short, “Miller’s Valley” focuses on a rural Pennsylvania family whose multigenerational farm is smack dab in what is proposed to become a reservoir/recreational lake. Quindlen’s expertise is to weave together fully developed characters into a contemporary plot line.

The key character in the book, Mimi Miller is now a woman of a certain age – Quindlen’s. And for me, identifying with the Mimi character was just way too easy. She grew up on the family farm selling corn from a card table along the road. Her two best suburban friends kept her company on those long summer days. Her dad was totally and inextricably devoted to the family’s land; her mother who married into the family not so much so. There was the relative who never set foot outside her house. Her older sibling was the high-achieving professional. Her first car was a “dead old lady’s Oldsmobile 88.” Nearing her late 20s, she would marry her best friend who came back into her life.

Photo courtesy Reed family Selling sweet corn from a card table and pick-up truck bed along Tuckerton Road in Muhlenberg Township, Berks County, circa 1957.

Photo courtesy Reed family
Selling sweet corn from a card table and pick-up truck bed along Tuckerton Road in Muhlenberg Township, Berks County, circa 1957.

Geez, all that stuff was like reading a fictionalized account of my own life. The fact that Quindlen’s birth year and mine coincide make the similarities a bit too weird, but the reality is events are often shared generationally.

But what really nailed me about “Miller’s Valley” were the events of the 1970s that happened not so far away from the Cocalico area. It was then that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers carefully and diligently created Blue Marsh Lake, literally washing away scores of multigenerational farms to create flood control downstream in Reading and Pottstown. Hurricane Agnes in 1972 was the final arbiter in the creation of Blue Marsh Lake.

ER20160427_COCMillersValleyKnowing Quindlen was born and raised Philadelphia and knowing her background as a journalist, I asked her if the Blue Marsh project was inspiration for “Miller’s Valley.” Her reply was emphatic.

“News stories are almost never a catalyst for my books,” she said, noting similar questions about similar government projects were posed to her during tour stops in San Francisco and Chicago.

Oddly, though, Quindlen made reference to the Tocks Island Dam Project, a 1950s-era planned dam a short distance north of the Delaware Water Gap that was designed to control damaging flooding of the Delaware River and provide clean water to New York City and Philadelphia. It never came about but 72,000 acres were acquired by condemnation and eminent domain.

So, it seemed a little odd with this comment, that “Miller’s Valley” has no basis in some reality.

But, what is reality is Blue Marsh Lake. Likely many Cocalico area residents make the 15-minute or so drive there to fish, boat, swim, or hike the nearby trails.

Photo courtesy of Joe Swope The cover of “Pleasant Valley Lost.”

Photo courtesy of Joe Swope
The cover of “Pleasant Valley Lost.”

And it is total reality for Berks-based author Joe Swope who in 2015 released his first book, “Pleasant Valley Lost,” a work of non fiction documenting the loss of his family’s much loved farm to the Blue Marsh Lake project.

Swope, whose day job is a spokesman for UGI, had not heard about the subject matter of “Miller’s Valley,” but seemed pleased that Quindlen’s work might shed light on the emotions tied to the government projects like this.

Swope’s catalyst, outside of living through the project and writing a bit about it early on, was actually an exhibition of photography of the lost land. Swope’s collegiate and young-adult effort at a book just never took.

“It seemed, as time passed by, that no one remembered or cared about the community,” he said. “The Corps had done its best to wipe out any remnants of Pleasant Valley.”

But then came the exhibit.

“Then, in 2013, Marilyn Fox and Steve Potteiger put on the “Blue Marsh: Landscape Lost” exhibit Penn State Berks Campus’ Freyberger Gallery,” he said. “A number of our family heirlooms were displayed as part of the exhibit, and part of my master’s degree final project was used for the program to show the historic timeline. The exhibit forced me to pull down from the attic my Blue Marsh files once again.

“Then, when the exhibit drew record crowds, I realized people were still interested and still remembered the community that was lost. That served as the motivation to finally write the book once and for all.”

Anna Quindlen reads from her latest book as event moderator  Photo by Donna Reed Tom Bailey, a Susquehanna University professor, listens during an April 14 appearance in Lancaster.

Anna Quindlen reads from her latest book as event moderator
Photo by Donna Reed
Tom Bailey, a Susquehanna University professor, listens during an April 14 appearance in Lancaster.

Mirroring Quindlen’s response to my question was the response Swope has received to his book published in early 2015.

“I’ve had a number of people reach out to me across the country with similar stories,” he said. “I was interviewed by The Authors Show, an online program, and the person conducting the interview had a similar story. Through much of the 20th Century, if there was a river or a creek, the first reaction was to dam it. We lost many, many communities through construction of dams of questionable worth. In most cases, people didn’t realize scope of the destruction caused by dam-building, or like me for many years, wrongly assumed no one cared.”

Telling the true story was tough for Swope as an author.

“There were two really hard parts of writing this book,” he said. “First was finding the right voice. I tried writing it in third person several times, and I could never illustrate how painful this process was to our family. So I finally settled on first person &tstr; something I NEVER do &tstr; and made myself the narrator the story.

“In doing that, I finally was able to give the story the emotional weight it deserved.”

It was also critical, he said, to place the story in historical context.

“The story takes place primarily between 1968 and 1972,” Swope said. “Not only was that more than 40 years ago (putting my own memory to the test), but there was so much history taking place around us: Vietnam, the Moon Landing, the demise of the inner cities and the growth of suburbia (in Berks County, witnessed by the opening of the Berkshire Mall), Watergate … the list goes on and on.”

Fiction or non-fiction, citizens do care.

Following a newspaper story about the book, Swope said his publisher received the most pre-orders of any book it ever published. He has made a series of appearances in the region and has been buoyed by the turnouts.

“Just last month, at the Wyomissing-West Lawn Library on a beautiful 70-degree Wednesday evening, more than 40 people attended my scheduled presentation,” he said. “I’ve had many, many people who lived in the area or had relatives there who have attended the presentations, e-mailed me, sent me letters and called me. In fact, most of the photos I share in my presentation have come from others who have provided them to me.”

I am embarrassed to say I’ve not yet read Swope’s book, but I plan on doing this soon in the wake of reading Quindlen’s which is ranked No. 7 this week on the New York Times Best Sellers’ list for hardcover fiction.

The fiction of Quindlen’s book seems like reality to me – and I imagine it may for Swope as well when he reads it.

And, Quindlen would tell you that just as she plans it.

“If you do (write) it right, the people in it (the novel) seem so much more real than the people in your life do,” she said.

Indeed, that key character of Mimi Miller sure seemed real to me; indeed some of her life seemed to be mine, including the loss of the family farm albeit for a different reason. But for Swope, there’s no imagining, no fiction.

“Pleasant Valley Lost” is the real deal.

“The one thing I would add is that my hope is that books like mine and Anna Quindlen’s do two things: build a historical archive of the many communities that were lost, and make sure we do not continue to blindly destroy our past,” Swope said. “In addition to losing buildings and landscapes, there’s a human factor that is never calculated.”

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