Why our truest places will always be there.
“It’s not down in any map. True places never are,” Herman Melville says. I disagree.
I owe my writing life to the true places and inspiration of western Pennsylvania, in particular Bedford County’s hills and “coves” — fjord-like valleys between the Allegheny foothills. My paternal grandfather was born not far from the ridge where we have an old farm.
It’s beautiful country but was never easy farming. The barn, struck by lightning, burned to the ground decades before my parents bought the place. It was never rebuilt. We came more than 50 years ago; by then, the farm was already more trees than pasture. We tried to keep it clear, but the tide of forest advanced.
My husband prunes the hundred-year-old Concord grapevine, and when the rain and sun are right, it still yields. For me, the crop that grows on the steep slopes and rocky soil is fiction: stories and novels rooted in true place. It’s my warm-weather home, but I’m there in my writing mind year-round.
Stories grew here centuries before they were written down. The forests of the Lenape, Shawnee, and Iroquois had tree cover so dense, no sunlight shone on the trails. Later came successive waves of immigrants and settlers: farming, lumbering, mining, blasting, and building creating stories of appropriation and exploitation, the consequences of aspiration and cultivation. Layers of stories, layers of history.
Today, many fly over the region or drive by on the turnpike. Recently, I sped along, too, heading west from Washington, casting a wistful glance from the turnpike toward our ridge. Spring’s coming; I’ll be home there soon. Still, it ached a bit, passing the empty, waiting house, pipes drained against the winter freeze.
But I was happy to be on my way to Pittsburgh to celebrate the publication of the interactive The Pittsburgh Novel: Western Pennsylvania in Fiction and Drama, 1792-2022, coauthored by Jake Oresick and his late father, Peter Oresick. Jake had invited me to sit on a panel at the launch. We’d never met in person, but several years ago, a Penn State librarian referred me to Jake as the go-to expert on the literature of the region. We corresponded.
I explained that I was preparing a talk for the Allegheny Festival of the Book. I told Jake that after my parents died almost 20 years earlier, I’d come up to their ridgetop, initially to grieve, and found myself writing stories and then a novel set in Bedford County. I confessed how still sometimes in the farmhouse, in the middle of the night, if a light shone down the hall, I imagined my insomniac father reading — maybe one from Hervey Allen’s classic Bedford trilogy on his shelf, more likely a paperback mystery.
Jake understands about fathers and their reading. He grew up exploring literary sites with his dad. Peter had discovered as a boy the special pleasure of reading a book set in his western Pennsylvania hometown, Ford City. Later a teacher, poet, and literary scholar in Pittsburgh, Peter embarked on his lifelong “literary scavenger hunt” to create The Pittsburgh Novel, his annotated bibliography of western Pennsylvania’s literature.
Peter died in 2016, entrusting Jake to complete his work in progress. “When I took up this project, I didn’t realize what a wonderful way to grieve it would be,” Jake told me. “When working on it, there were very few times when I wouldn’t be talking to my father under my breath. I’m glad to know that’s not so unusual.”
Peter left a thousand additional titles to review and annotate when he died. Jake took up the baton and continued the marathon. He didn’t just complete the bibliography but expanded it, vetting, annotating, and including books published between 2015-2022 (lucky for latecomers like me). Jake read my novel The Bowl with Gold Seams on a plane ride to Europe — rare for him not to have to speed read, he admitted at the launch. Further good fortune for me to have a captive audience.
Peter had discussed publication with Penn State University Press. Jake, his mother, Stephanie Flom, and the university decided that rather than a bound book (likely multiple volumes), the bibliography would be most useful as an online publication: accessible and searchable in multiple, interlocking dimensions, including author, location, date, subject, and genre.
And now, drumroll, The Pittsburgh Novel is live and free to use on Penn State University Libraries’ Open Publication imprint. Celebrating the launch with the crowd of readers and writers gathered at the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library, Jake demonstrated the database on a big screen.
Open this enormous sampler of book chocolates for yourself. Find over 200 years’ worth of books and plays to choose from, everything from classics to mysteries, zombie thrillers to literary fiction.
Choose your own adventure, design your own scavenger hunt. The Oresicks’ portable treasure map is always available in the ether-sphere, always ready on the phone in your pocket, not wrinkled and stuffed away in a glove compartment. Written on air, just right for a bibliographic map of stories and places that are both real and imagined, true and not true. The most magical dimension the bibliography offers is its multiple layers of time — coordinates locating true places that have changed or vanished from the “real” world.
My Wi-Fi’s not great in the farmhouse; I’ll have to use a hotspot. But a fading 50-year-old topographic survey map of one quadrant of Bedford County hangs in the house — a small piece of the county, not a small map. Each tiny black dot represents a home scattered along the winding roads, each building in the villages.
The next dot west after ours denotes another farmhouse a mile away. Our neighbor was born there in 1933, and lived there until she died four years ago. Her house, ours, and the one just west of hers were built by brothers about two centuries ago. The new owners razed her place and sold its chestnut logs. They do love the land, though, and are building their new home a little higher up, in the meadow where they married. It will command a fine view.
So, does my late neighbor’s black dot on the paper map represent a false place now? No! I will never white it out. That mark still represents a true place.
“There’s a lot happening up here,” my neighbor used to tell me. “You should be writing stories.” I am, I told her. I still am, I tell her today. Stories of real and imagined people, set in true places like her vanished home.
So, Mr. Melville, I disagree. True places are eternally down in the map of memory and imagination.
Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s collection of love stories is Known By Heart. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her novel Frieda’s Song was a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award, Historical Fiction. Her column, “Girl Writing,” appears in the Independent bi-monthly. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.