That’s the question I answered this past Saturday, February 16, when I spoke during “A Place We Call Home,” the first session of the Queen Anne’s Council’s Eastern Shore Heritage & History series.
Historian and novelist Brent Lewis; poet and founder/director of Salisbury Poetry Week Tara Elliott; and I had been invited to give our perspectives.
I’m Kenton Kilgore, I write young adult sci-fi and fantasy, and much of my work has been set on the Eastern Shore.
Some authors and poets write about the Eastern Shore because they’re inspired by its natural beauty: the Bay and its rivers and streams, the wetlands, the wildlife. It’s all about that for them.
For other writers, it’s Delmarva’s rich history that gets them going: the first European settlers, the War of 1812, the farmers and watermen, the isolation that ended with the first Bay Bridge that opened in 1952. That’s what it’s all about for them.
For me, the Eastern Shore is all about community. There’s no place I’ve lived or visited that’s quite like it. Though nowhere is perfect, nowhere is entirely free from ugliness and division and shameful moments in its past, the Eastern Shore—or at least the part I know best, Kent Island—is, in my not-so-humble-opinion, home to mostly good, sensible, caring people whom you’d want to live next door to.
It’s where people light their porches in purple for opioid awareness. Where they wear red in memory of a middle school boy killed in a car accident. They cook meals, and volunteer to staff the homeless shelter for people here in QA County who have no place of their own. They help neighbors clean up after hurricanes, or disasters like the tornado that hit Kent Island in July 2017.
As recently as last night, well over a hundred volunteers, at least half of them high-school kids, came together to host the 2019 “Night to Shine” event at St. Christopher’s Catholic Church in Chester. “Night to Shine,” run by the Tim Tebow Foundation, is an annual prom held for individuals with special needs.
The volunteers set up and decorated the hall where the dance would be held, arranged for the music, and food, and limo rides for fun around the block. The company that provided the limos didn’t take a dime for their cars or their drivers. The food was donated by the local Chick-fil-A franchise, whose owner lives on the island.
When the guests–about 120 teenagers and adults with intellectual and/or physical disabilities–arrived, the volunteers welcomed and cheer them. They served as “buddies” to the guests, hanging out with them, talking with them, eating with them, dancing with them, taking selfies with them, and having fun with them.
But the people of the Eastern Shore aren’t just connected by big, important things like that. It’s the little things, too. In Facebook groups, they offer each other recommendations on which plumbers or house painters or contractors to call. They go to the high schools to see the theater productions, even if they don’t have kids, or theirs are grown and gone. They wave—even if they don’t know each other—when they drive or walk by in their neighborhoods.
You don’t feel that connectivity, that community in many other places. It’s not always strong: you should try being a Pittsburgh Penguins fan, like me, during hockey playoff season around here. People also get cranky about beach traffic. But other than that….
So, reflecting that “community” that you find out here is one of the reasons why I set most of my books here.
Another reason is because writing teachers tell you to “write what you know,” and I first became familiar with Kent Island and the Eastern Shore in 1984, when I was 17, the same age as Alyx, the narrator—and I say unironically, the Feisty Teenage Heroine—of my latest book, This Wasted Land.
This Wasted Land, by the way, is a dark fantasy novel with lots of romance, but it’s not your typical teenage love story. It’s:
- Boy meets Girl
- Evil Witch takes Boy
- Girl goes to get Boy back.
I was an outsider when I came to the Eastern Shore, and Alyx is, too: as the book opens, she’s moved to the area only a few months before, and the little she knows about the community and the area is mostly due to her boyfriend Sam, who’s lived here all his life.
Alyx and Sam meet at a record store over the summer before their senior year starts. After occasionally talking at school over the first few weeks, she reluctantly goes to Homecoming with him, where they find they have something crucial in common, and start seeing each other.
But while Alyx connects with Sam, she doesn’t do so with the community around her, and Sam points that out to her—and what she’s missing—in flashback scene later in the book. A moment that Alyx recalls as she scrolls through photos on Sam’s phone.
This one, of a sunset, pink down low, near the horizon, indigo-purple clouds above, hiding the sun as it slipped away. Sam took this picture from the roof of St. Christopher’s. The hall, not the church, because the church roof was way too high and way too steep: you’d slide right off if you so much as sneezed. But the one on the hall was easy-peasy to climb up, even for Sam. Not that he was thrilled with the idea.
* * *
“We’re going to get caught,” he said.
“No one’s going to find out,” I told him. “And so what if they did? It’s not really breaking the law. Well, maybe it is.”
“You’re a bad influence. That’s what I’m going to tell the sheriff, anyway.”
“Totally worth it.”
Sam took a picture with his phone, one of those new ones that was supposed to have a really great camera. Like so good, that whatever you took would look like a pro did it. At least, that’s what the ads said, not that I believed that. Besides, photography is bullshit. Anyone can point a phone and press a button and Photoshop it until it looks like a magazine cover. It’s not art. Drawing is art.
I was sketching with colored pencils. Kinda frustrating, cuz nothing I had was the right shade of pink, but it was turning out okay anyway. “Maryland has the prettiest sunsets of any place I’ve been,” I said.
“My dad says it’s because of all the hot air coming out of D.C.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It’s supposed to be a joke.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Because it’s not funny. How are the sunsets in Korea?”
“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been.”
“Weren’t you born there?”
“No, I was born in Georgia.”
“So, you’re a citizen?”
“Just asking. What’s Georgia like?”
“I don’t remember. We didn’t live there long. We left when I was maybe three.”
“Where did you move to?”
“Texas. Then North Carolina, I think. By then, my dad had got out of the Army. But we kept moving around. Illinois. Louisiana. All over.”
“My mom doesn’t talk about it—she never talks about anything—but my uncle Tony told me. My dad kept losing his jobs. He was always late, or hungover, or he’d just not show up at all. He’d argue with customers, or cuss out the guys he worked with, or he’d talk shit to the boss, cuz he always wanted to do things his way, even if he didn’t know any better. A couple times, they caught him stealing: tools and copper wiring from one job, cash and blank checks from another. Once, he got into a fight in a parking lot for hitting on this dude’s wife who worked at the same place.”
“That’s messed up. I guess the only good thing is that at least you got to see different places.”
“Places that suck. Not like Kent Island. You’re lucky. You’ve lived here your whole life, right?”
“So, what’s that like?”
“It’s okay, I guess. I mean, it’s not like exciting, or anything. There’s really not much to do. It’s this quiet little place all on its own, separate from the rest of the world, where nothing ever happens. You know, like The Shire.”
“What’s ‘The Shire?’”
“Never mind. It’d take too long to explain.”
“But you like it here?”
“Yeah, it’s all right. I’m not going to stay forever, but…I belong here. At least, for now.”
Belong here. What is that even supposed to mean? Like, being from somewhere, maybe the same place your parents are from? Living in the same house, or if you do move, it’s just down a couple streets so you can have a place with more bedrooms and bathrooms? Knowing people their whole lives, and them knowing you, and you going to the same schools together, and doing the same things they do? Is that what belonging here is?
“That sounds nice.”
“You could belong here.”
I shook my head.
I shrugged. “I don’t belong anywhere.”
“That’s because you make yourself so…remote. You give off this vibe like you know you don’t fit in, and you don’t want to. Like when you used to sit all by yourself at the top of the stairs during lunch.”
“I don’t do that anymore.”
“Yeah, now that you sit with me and my friends. But you don’t talk to them.”
“I’m not into gaming, and that’s all they do.”
“Okay, but they like you. They think it’s awesome that you’re an artist.”
“I’m not that good.”
“That’s not the point. The point is that I’m the only person you hang out with—except when you don’t, like when I wanted to take you to the cast party.”
“I don’t know anyone in theater.”
“You know me, and I could have introduced you to everyone.”
“Parties aren’t my thing.”
“They could be if you ever went. There’s an Art Club at school, but you haven’t joined it. You could get a job—Chick-fil-A is always hiring—”
“I’m not working at Chickaflicka.”
“There are lots of other places you could apply to.”
“Uncle Tony gives me gas money.”
“I sing in the teen choir here at church. You could come with me and mom.”
“We’re at church right now.”
“Real funny. You’d rather step away from anything than be part of it—doesn’t that get old?”
“Stop giving me shit about what I do.”
“What do you do, besides sketch and listen to old music and ride your bike too fast?”
“I thought you liked that about me.”
“I do, but I want you to have more than just me. I want you to have friends. I want you to have fun. You say you ‘don’t’ belong, but I think you really mean ‘won’t.’”
I didn’t answer.
“And I don’t know why you do that, because you don’t have to.”
The sun was sinking into the ground, and indigo deepened to black.
“Are you breaking up with me?” I asked.
“No,” he said, looking at me like I’d asked him if he was going to hit himself in the balls with a hammer. “Why would you think that?”
“Cuz I don’t have any friends, and I don’t do anything fun, and I’m not pretty, and I’m weird, and I’m for-real crazy, and it sounds like you want me gone because you think all I have is you.” I wasn’t going to cry. I was not going to cry, damn it. Instead, I looked at the sun as it went. “Even though it’s true. All I have is you.”
Sam scooched closer, took my pad and set it on the rooftop. It didn’t slide off, but I wouldn’t have cared if it had. He held me, kissed me. Pulled away just far enough to tell me, “You have your uncle, and my mom, and you can have me as long as you want.”
Awwww, I know right? Gets you in the feels. Happy Belated Valentine’s Day.
Well, my time is running short, but I hope you see what I mean about the Eastern Shore and community. Before I moved here, in 1998, I’d had many addresses, particularly when I was a child—like Alyx does. But I found a home, and I found a place to belong—like what Alyx is looking for, whether she knows it or not.
I’ve been here 21 years. I don’t think I’ll ever leave. And it’s not because it’s pretty here, and there’s lots of history. It’s because what we have, you can’t find anywhere else. It’s because of the community, and that’s people—people like you. Thank you for making the Eastern Shore such a great place, and thanks for coming out tonight to support your local writers and the QAC Arts Council.
There was a question-and-answer session after we three writers spoke, and I also read Chapter 1 of TWL, which the audience enjoyed. You can read Chapter 1 for free here.
Kenton Kilgore writes kickass SF/F for young adults and adults who are still young. In addition to This Wasted Land, he is the author of Lost Dogs, the story of the end of the world as seen, heard–and smelled–by a dog.
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