Why the 1930s?
by Maryanne O'Hara
Cascade was originally going to be a few different short stories. One was going to be about an artist who worked for Roosevelt’s New Deal public arts projects in the 1930s. I was interested in writing about what had then been a new idea, at least in America: that the artist’s job was just as important as the bricklayer’s or plumber’s. Another story idea was inspired by the ‘threatened town’ setting that had haunted me since I was a child, when I first saw the Quabbin Reservoir, a vast Massachusetts water supply that covers what were once four towns.
These ideas came together as a novel the day I wondered: what would happen if I set an artist’s story in a similarly threatened place? I was particularly interested in challenging myself to write beyond 1930s stereotypes. We hear “The Great Depression” and visualize runs on banks, and people on street corners selling apples. But when I interviewed people who actually lived through those times, I consistently heard, “Oh, yes, it was a terrible time, although it wasn’t so bad for us. My father always had a job.” One neighbor of mine, a brilliant and vivacious woman who almost lived to be 100, told me about the roadster her father bought her for her 17th birthday, two months after the market crashed in 1929.
I came to realize that it is uncertainty that makes hard times hard for everyone, which is something that everyone can relate to. My characters, Dez and Asa, are managing well enough in Cascade, but at one point, Dez feels for herself “the undercurrent of anxiety that had plagued people everywhere these past years: How much worse can things get? If I have a job, how long can I keep it? What will I do if I lose it?”
Today, our economy is the worst it’s been since those lean Depression years, and yet now, as then, everyone's experience is different. For example, as I write this, I’m on vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Pleasure boats sail the waters. All over the island, shops and restaurants are packed. The Vineyard is a privileged spot, no question, yet it is just as much a microcosm of the USA as anywhere else. Amongst the vacationers who are here for the entire summer, there are many who are here for a single, precious week. The local fishermen are all complaining that catches are low—two stripers caught on a license that allows five, at four dollars a pound, and some days, there are no stripers at all. These fishermen worry about more than the coming winter; they worry about now. And they are just one segment of an island community that hustles to survive during the long months when ferries carry few visitors and the sun sets at 4pm.
Because I really feel that not a whole lot changes in this world of ours, beyond the magic of mass communication and air travel and such, I wanted to challenge myself to write about the thirties in a way that felt contemporary and real. When you read Edith Wharton, or watch a well-done period movie like “The Best Years of Our Lives,” you realize that good writing is timeless because it portrays people as they are and always have been. So even though Cascade is set in the past, it reveals, I hope, our underlying human sameness. I hope it recognizes the humanity, not just the history, of those who lived before us.
Maryanne O'Hara earned an MFA from Emerson College and spent many years as Associate Editor for Ploughshares, the award-winning Boston literary journal. Her short fiction has won numerous prizes and has appeared in anthologies and literary journals. CASCADE is her first novel. You can watch the trailer for CASCADE here, as well as visit her website and blog. Maryanne and CASCADE were recently featured in a lengthy feature in the Boston Globe.