I'm Always Looking for Home: An Interview with Amy Hassinger
"I’m always asking where home is," says Amy Hassinger, author of After the Dam (Red Hen Press). So are her characters. After the Dam tells the story of Rachel Clayborne, an exasperated young mother who flees the home she shares with her husband for her childhood retreat, her grandmother's lakehouse in northern Wisconsin. The only problem? Her grandmother is dying, and Diane, the woman taking care of her seems intent on inheriting the house. Things get complicated when Rachel learns why the family home might go to Diane. She's a tribal member whose family once owned the land the house sits on. Hassinger deftly explores the idea of ownership, what home means, and the people who are connected to them. We had some questions for her.
Coucou Home: What was the inspiration for the home at the heart of After the Dam?
Amy Hassinger: There are a few homes in After the Dam, but the primary one is based on my grandparents’ summer home in northern Wisconsin, where I have vacationed all my life. In fact, four generations of my family have vacationed there: my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother. And now my children, too.
So many of the pictures that inspired the house in After the Dam depict what appears to be a happy, outdoorsy vibe few people experience today. Can you describe what it was like and how it affected your outlook on life?
It was happy and outdoorsy. Full of family who loved to work hard and play hard. When my grandparents bought the place in the early 50s, their vision was that it would serve as a kind of family summer camp for their five children. And so my grandmother set to work creating that atmosphere, with plenty of games, sports, and activities. She was a phys ed major in college, so physical fitness and being active were always top priorities of hers. We held tennis tournaments with all the extended family (including my grandmother’s four siblings and their children and grandchildren), sailed and canoed and rowed, walked and ran down the county roads, played croquet and ping pong, swam and waterskied in the lake, played baseball games (where there was no such thing as striking out, if you were a kid), and even organized family Olympics, complete with hurdles. Some summers there were Great Paper Chases—a complicated treasure hunt involving lots of planted clues. My cousins and I played Kick the Can and Capture the Flag in the evenings. There were family talent shows and “circuses,” ice cream socials, and campfire picnics down by the lake, including sing a-longs. When I think of the enthusiasm my grandmother and her siblings, and then my mother and her siblings, put into creating this fun, active, loving, and embracing experience for their kids, it amazes me.
Growing up with all of this gave me a very strong sense of family identity and belonging. I felt strongly connected to not just my grandparents and my immediate family, but to my aunts and uncles and cousins, and even second cousins, great aunts and uncles, first cousins once removed, etc. That was an enormous blessing, and also a rare privilege.
Rachel can't seem to let go of her childhood home. How do you feel childhood and home are intertwined?
Childhood is such an intense time of life. There are so many “firsts.” It’s the ground on which we form our identities and the central obsessions of our adult selves. And our homes, of course, are one of our primary firsts. Home is the place where we first learn to love (or where we first feel the lack of it), the place where we meet our fellow earthlings for the first time—ants, squirrels, birds at the feeder and in the air, mammals large and small, insects, and plants, the life all around us. It’s where we begin to amass our internal catalog of smells—pine needles warming in the sun, the fresh air off a lake, or the tang of gasoline in traffic. The same is true, of course, for sights, sounds, sensations, tastes. It’s our sensory proving ground, the foundation for our language, the site on which we begin to build our web of associations that we attach to each word. Pine needles, for example, are evocative for me because I associate the sight and smell of them with my family’s summer home, a place I adored and longed for when I was away from it. These initial associations are so powerful—they stay with us all our lives. Even if we move away from home later in life, we’ve usually imprinted in some way on the place or places we consider to be home. In my adult life, I’ve found that I’m always searching in some way for that childhood sense of being “at home”—being surrounded by family, by woods and water, safe, cared for, and free.
But again, I recognize I’m extremely lucky. Not everyone has these same kinds of positive associations with their childhood home. For too many people, their first home is where they experienced their first and most devastating traumas. Childhood homes, sadly, are not always homey.
Part of the novel literally delves into the practice of flooding towns, especially Native American ones. You presented a creative way to talk about that fact through the eyes of Joe, a tribal member whose ancestors lived on such land. What were you hoping to accomplish with Joe's perspective of his ancestral home?
Both Joe and Rachel, my protagonist, are longing for a past that no longer exists. In Joe’s case, this is his great-grandparents’ home, which was destroyed when the village was flooded to build the dam. Joe scuba dives in the reservoir as a way of trying to conjure up a past he never actually knew, but one he longs for—one that he imagines as being more pure, more whole, than his current reality. He’s also aware that his ideas about that past are romanticized. And yet he longs for this inaccessible ideal of home.
That tantalizing closeness and yet total inaccessibility of the past is something that’s at the center of conceptions of home. Our ideals—either of what home once was, or what it should be—never quite meet with the reality of what our homes actually are.
In After the Dam, there are myriad types of places the characters inhabit (for short and long periods of time) such as a cabin, a yurt, an old homestead, a hotel even, but what do you think is the "real" home that Rachel is longing for?
My reflexive answer is that Rachel longs to be at home in her self—this new mother-self, that’s just been born along with the birth of her baby. And this is true. But she also does long for this particular place, her grandmother’s summer lake house (called The Farm), where she felt most at home as a child. When she begins to lose a sense of who she is, it makes sense that she would want to return to that place as a way of grounding herself. Only, the place has changed. It’s not what it used to be, exactly—nor is she. So she has to learn to accept that, in both cases.
You brilliantly shined a light on the way native people differently relate to home in After the Dam, can you talk a little bit about the differences from say, Joe's family tribe versus Rachel and her family?
I certainly don’t want to speak for Native people as a whole, because I can’t. My characters, both Native and non-Native, are individuals—people who live within larger cultures and are influenced by them, of course, but who remain individuals. So, let me speak just for my characters. Joe’s mother, Diane, feels attached to the Farm because it used to belong to her great-grandfather. The story in her family is that Diane’s grandmother tricked her great-grandfather out of his land; she got him to sell it to Rachel’s great-grandfather to help support their family during a desperate time. This is a thing Diane has always wished had never happened. So when Maddy, Rachel’s grandmother, offers Diane the Farm as a gift, Diane gladly accepts. To her and to Maddy, it’s a form of restoration.
Joe, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with the Farm. For him, it’s too tied up with his mother’s expectations of him, with the idea of a life she wants him to lead. He wants to make his own way, and he prefers living simply in his yurt by the reservoir he manages. Home, for him, is not about ownership, it’s more about stewardship—the place you care for is your home, whether or not you own it.
The opposite is true for Rachel’s family; ownership is important. You take care of what you own, and when you no longer want to care for a piece of property, you can and should convert it into money.
Land ownership, of course, is political, and who owns land has to do with who wields power. The founding of our country is inextricably tied to the theft of millions of acres of land from indigenous peoples who had different ideas about land ownership. What does it mean to own land and property? Is home necessarily a place you own? Can we be stewards of land that doesn’t belong to us? Are there ways we can find to move toward a more just distribution of land? The novel asks these kinds of questions.
We had talked about the parallel between one story thread in your book and what is happening with the Dakota Access Pipeline, specifically as it pertains to land rights. Obviously, when you began this novel, the pipeline wasn't in the news, so what influenced you then?
Yes, I was struck by the similarities when the news about the Dakota Access Pipeline came out. Of course the question of land rights is as old as this country. If you go looking, you can find examples everywhere of ways in which people abuse power in order to gain the right to exploit land that doesn’t belong to them.
My book grew out of a different set of historical events with similar themes. The dam in After the Dam is based on a real dam, called the Winter dam, which created the Chippewa Flowage, a large lake in northern Wisconsin. (This is not the same lake that my family vacationed on.) When the Winter Dam was built—by a power company—its reservoir flooded out hundreds of acres of reservation land, including thousands of ancient graves, a village, many homes and buildings, and valuable wild rice stands that the people harvested for food. The tribe was against the building of the dam from the beginning, but the power company came in, with support from the federal government, and took the land anyway. It’s an old, old story.
I like to offer people perspective into how others make home in the world, so can you tell me about how a few of your characters have made their homes in the world?
By the end of the novel, Rachel is beginning to find a new way to make her home in the world. The way she’s been trying has largely been her husband’s way, which is to say, leading an academic life in a college town. Michael is at home in that world in a way Rachel isn’t. Joe, as I’ve said, makes his home in a yurt by the reservoir. Diane lives simply in a house on a quiet street in a small city. Maddy, Rachel’s grandmother, lived most of her adult life in a very comfortable house in a Chicago suburb; once her husband died, she saw little reason to stay there, and moved to their summer home on the lake year-round, the place that had always been home in her heart.
Finally Amy, how do you make home in the world?
Like Rachel, I’m always looking for home. I live in a college town myself—Champaign-Urbana, Illinois—on a quiet tree-lined street near the University of Illinois. While I’ve lived here long enough to feel at home, and to have built many connections in this community, I still feel drawn back to the east coast, where a large part of my family lives, and where I feel more connected to the landscape. I’m always asking where home is.