Sixty years ago, South Bend, Indiana, offered America a preview of what was to come in the industrial heartland. The Christmas 1963 shuttering of the Studebaker automobile plant foreshadowed the coming decline of American manufacturing, and the decimation of Midwestern cities. Seven thousand people were put out of work, in a town of 130,000.
And while South Bend has recovered to some extent in the years since, the six-decade legacy of abandonment is still never far from sight. And now, South Bend’s legacy of decline has become the unlikely inspiration for an award-winning debut novel by 30-year-old author Tess Gunty.
“I was born 30 years after Studebaker closed,” she said. “I think that the kinds of consequences of economic decline become extremely personal. They’re anchored in the beating hearts of those that you know and love.”
Gunty, a South Bend native, showed Costa the neighborhood where she spent the first five years of her life: “Apparently the most formative years according to psychologists!” she laughed.
Gunty has crafted characters on the fringes of a fictional city based on her hometown. The book is called “The Rabbit Hutch,” named after the shabby apartment building that houses the story’s protagonist, Blandine Watkins.
When asked whether Gunty was Watkins, she replied, “No and yes. I’m Blandine insofar as I am every single character in this book. I don’t think you can write without putting much of your emotional experience into every single character. I may not know what it’s like to have a baby, but I know what it’s like to feel fear, and I know what it’s like to feel out of control.”
The book follows Blandine and her roommates, young adults who’ve aged-out of the foster care system without having found a “forever” family.
Though she writes about orphans, Gunty’s own experience was different: “I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had love from my family unconditionally all my life. When I was thinking about this town as an essentially orphaned place, it was important to get into the psychologies of characters who had been truly abandoned.”
The child of academics whose creativity outstripped their incomes, from an early age Gunty developed an eye for details that speak to class and status.
Costa said, “You write in a funny and scathing way about the new aristocracy in suburban America, where everyone smells like dryer sheets; they’re wearing outdoor gear that’s meant for climbing mountains, but they’re in the Indiana suburbs.”
“Well, this was something that I did personally experience,” she said. “When I went to high school, we received free tuition at a Catholic high school, and so my family was able to attend this school that we probably couldn’t have afforded otherwise. This was the first time that I really understood the relativity of my own economic position. You know, we might have had difficult times financially, but we always had what we needed. And that was not true for my friends, you know, in my neighborhood. They were suffering from so many more extreme forms of neglect and poverty.”
Last year, “The Rabbit Hutch” won the National Book Award for fiction, making Tess Gunty the youngest recipient since legendary novelist Philip Roth back in 1960. The award put Gunty on the map at a time when literary fiction sales are in steep decline, , and some declare the college English major obsolete.
But Gunty is a passionate advocate for her craft. She said, “The book is a collaboration between the reader and the writer. It’s an imaginative collaboration. It’s not a relationship between a consumer and a product; it is something more freely entered (and, to me, sacred) than that.”
Costa asked, “Do some of your friends say being a novelist is old-fashioned?”
“Yeah, it’s sometimes treated like you’re a blacksmith or something. They’re like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know you could do that anymore!'”
While Gunty knows a literary novel may be an unlikely place to tackle the economic and political issues of our times, her writing vibrates with a certain kind of ambition, both as a breakout talent, and as a voice for the people of Indiana.
“The slogan for the state is that it’s the crossroads of America,” she said. “And for a long time, I didn’t understand what that meant. But now I think of it as a place where all the contradictions of America are very alive and they’re actively fighting each other. I think it’s a mistake to assume that Indiana is a monolithic place with one set of ideals and one demographic. It is a place that is vast and various and mysterious.”
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Story produced by Ed Forgotson. Editor: George Pozderec.