Northampton, Massachusetts, a small city of around thirty thousand—the size of Plato’s ideal city- state—sits on the Connecticut River roughly in the center of the state and has done so for over 341 years. It is home to Smith College, a prestigious women’s school. Its tree-shaded streets, historic town center, spirit of civic involvement; its history and its appearance; its tolerance, despite its New England Puritan background, for difference—all contribute to making it perhaps as ideal a hometown as one might imagine. It is a town that works as successfully as any city works and probably better than most. Yet even Northampton has its hidden sides, its secrets, its “malignancy and suffering,” its “tenderness and joy, all the little acts of courage and kindness and simple competence and diligence operating all the time.” Home Town reveals the nature and depth of this place, familiar to every reader and yet revealed with such clarity and profundity that one will not be able to look again at one’s own well-known hometown with the same eyes as before. The book, taken as a whole, is a genial, evocative, and perhaps somewhat idealized portrait of civic life and virtue in the particulars of the lives of specific individuals. While not a formal sociological or urban planning treatise, it is nevertheless an essay that merits note because of its compelling artistry, its qualities as literary nonfiction, and its creation of the texture and feel of contemporary urban life in the voices, figures, and domestic lives of the real citizens of a real hometown.
To create his portrait, Kidder profiles a dozen or so residents of the town, some historical, some contemporary. Tommy O’Connor, the central figure of the book, grew up in Northampton; he is the son of a man who served as city treasurer for decades and whose reputation as an emcee and storyteller is large and secure. Tommy, even as a child, always wanted to be a Northampton policeman with a big family living his life out in his hometown. He is an “Irish cop” of the new breed: big, his shaved head capable of either appropriate menace or a joyful laugh and hearty greeting. After joining the force
he rose through the ranks . . . from patrol officer to detective, and finally, after ten years, to the sergeant in charge of patrol on the evening shift. He now commanded half a dozen young officers—a well-trained, grown-up version of the O’Connor Detective Agency [formed with his childhood chums when they were boys].
Among the more famous of Northampton’s earlier inhabitants, Kidder acknowledges such local figures as Sylvester Judd, a nineteenth century newspaper editor and antiquarian who collected and saved documents and memorabilia from the city’s earliest seventeenth century inhabitants and events, and the eighteenth century theologian Jonathan Edwards, who lived and preached in the town for twenty-five years. Among present-day figures whom Kidder profiles is Mayor Mary Ford, who runs the city’s twenty-five departments and worries about both the city’s fiscal health and the politics necessary to make the city a safe, tolerant, and interesting home for its citizens. Judge W. Michael Ryan of the district court, born and reared in Northampton, seems remarkably liberal and sometimes creative in his sentencing of the town’s criminal element; the cases he hears largely involve drugs, petty theft, or domestic issues. Ron Hall is part of the AM radio station’s team; his odd cadences make him an aural fixture in the town. Rick Janacek, a boyhood friend and neighbor of Tommy and also a cop, is accused by his soon-to-be former wife of child molestation; this case becomes a somber thread woven throughout the tapestry of Kidder’s portrait of the city. Another somber thread is the story of the homeless, the economically unfortunate, and the mentally ill. In a rooming house “full of misery and excess and anonymity right across the street from fancy restaurants and bookstores . . . just a short walk away from a famous college,” Freddie, a drifter, apparently has become the first murder victim in several years.
Alan Scheinman, a lawyer and developer from New Bedford, had moved to Northampton to publish fine books. The well-to-do son of a “man of many accomplishments,” Scheinman creates a small fortune through astute moves...
(The entire section is 1765 words.)