Tag Archives: Where I Belong

Where I Belong: a Novel About an Appalachian Non-Belonger

Yesterday I learned that my most recent novel, Where I Belong, is one of the 2016 finalists for the Selah Award.

Sometimes my stories begin in my head as a search for answers to questions. This novel began, as best I can remember, with the question: how does a young man from the southern Appalachians, raised by loving but imperfect parents, adjust to the outside world?

This age of refugees reminds us of the non-belonger. Refugees are those fleeing Syria’s brutal horror, but they are also the homeless in our cities.

Mark Pacer, the twenty-something young adult leaving tight-knit kinfolk behind to enter another era is, for a while, a non-belonger—to the older generation and sometimes to his new peers.

What do we owe our past tribes when we leave them, if anything?

What do we owe our families, if we are fortunate enough to have nurturing families? What do we not owe our families? What if we are drawn to different values?

When we leave one culture for another, whether as obvious refugees or less obvious ones, how do we handle our loneliness, the loneliness of the non-belonger? What values do we keep when entering a different culture, or when an alien culture threatens our own?

The Old Testament talks of the strangers and the aliens and calls us to treat them kindly.

Where I Belong

After working with a story over a long period, I develop an attachment to my characters. That’s probably why they reappear in later novels, often in cameo roles. Joe Harlan, an older Foreign Service officer, appears off and on as a kind of mentor to the younger characters. I finally made him a main character in Tender Shadows.

The author Wendell Berry, in his series of writings about the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, does much the same thing. Main actors in one novel become supporting actors in another.

His novels, like mine, are not a connected series featuring one main character.

After completing Tender Shadows, I began a story about Mark Pacer, a transplant from Mocking Bird, Georgia, to the Foreign Service in 1976. I decided to let Mark have his own series (Where I Belong). A series lets me enjoy Mark from youth to—who knows—old age?

Following Mark’s life through the years also allows me to indulge my love of near history. The seventy years from 1945 (the end of World War II) carried us from early television to smart phones, from daily print newspapers with occasional extra editions to news from the far corners of the globe at the flick of an iPad.

What did this warp speed journey do to us? How does a fairly conservative young man, raised in an Appalachian village in the fifties and sixties, react to the changes of the seventies and beyond? Where does he belong? Will he become a refugee from the past?

Mark is twenty-one when the series begins, just finishing college and accepting an appointment with the U.S. Foreign Service. His father objects. “Too dandified for people like us,” he says, and we’re off into the story, which I’ve almost finished.