The first lesson in any writing course is “Write what you know,” and West Shore Community College Communications Instructor Natalie Grochowski has done exactly that. Her first book, “Welcome to Replica Dodge,” is slated for publication by Wayne State University Press on March 11.
Published under her author name, Natalie Ruth Joynton, “Welcome to Replica Dodge” is the first-person account of her move to Mason County and the challenges she faces in adjusting to a place much different from her home in urban Houston. The quiet rural community where rabid bats threaten pets and most everyone attends church on Sunday seems an unlikely place to put down roots.
The book recounts Grochowski’s spiritual journey as well as she reassesses her Southern Baptist upbringing and converts to Reform Judaism. Practicing her faith 100 miles from the nearest synagogue and marriage to a man outside the Jewish faith present their own challenges.
If that wasn’t enough, the big old farmhouse she and her fiancé purchase is a bit of a riddle. In the yard, the former owner has built a miniature replica of Dodge City, Kansas, the one-room schoolhouse, general store, saloon, bunkhouse and jail as out of place among Midwestern cherry orchards as the author.
Literary historian and critic David Mikics describes Grochowski’s book as “a page-turning delight,” but as tempting as it is to read it in one sitting, the reader shouldn’t rush. Grochowski’s rich narrative deserves the same focus and attention that she expended in writing it.
Particularly moving is the scene of her Sunday afternoon visits to the Rothko Chapel in Houston, where, depending on the weather and the character of light coming through the chapel windows, the paintings shift from one-dimensional black to layered reds and purples. The passage verges on the mystical, a hint of the magic that happens when conscious thought is suspended and sitting quietly allows meaning to reveal itself.
Mason County readers will delight in recognizing the familiar: asparagus fields and snow-choked back roads, fresh plums from the farmers market. But “Replica Dodge” isn’t limited to a local audience. Grochowski’s personal reminiscence becomes a universal tale of the struggle to fit in and the doubt about one’s place in the community. “Was there anyone in Mason County who did not know what it was like to feel out of place?” she writes. “Even for just a moment? Even just a little?”
The Mason County of Grochowski’s book is a microcosm of the larger world, a place that seems alien at first glance, but where belonging and possibility lie just below the surface. Recognition of those layers happens in the same way a Rothko painting is revealed, or features of a landscape when the light across the meadow changes as the sun sets farther to the south in the spring.
The creative process
Grochowski’s book began as a personal journal, a way of making sense of her new surroundings. “I came here and realized it was so different from Houston,” she said. “Like no students coming to class one day in November because it was ‘Opening Day.’ I didn’t understand that. I recorded the oddities of everyday life as I tried to figure them out.”
When her daughter was born, Grochowski took a break from writing, but once she’d mastered her new routine, she returned to her manuscript. “If you’re committed to writing a book and chasing down little scraps of time, you can do it even within the huge pressures of early motherhood,” she said. “If you make room for writing in your life, that’s what gets the book done.”
Writing was instinctive for Grochowski even before she knew how to write. “When I was a small girl,” she explained, “my mother would say, ‘Tell me a story.’ She knew I loved to listen to stories and make stories up. We’d sit at the table and she would make me a grilled cheese and get out computer paper and write the stories I told, and I would draw the pictures. At the end, she’d take off the perforated edges and staple them together and say ‘Here’s your book.’”
The Made in Michigan Writers Series division of Wayne State University Press seemed the logical place to try for actual publication. Within two weeks of submitting the “Replica Dodge” manuscript, Grochowski received an enthusiastic offer. “They’ve been wonderful to work with,” she said.
In the end, “Welcome to Replica Dodge” is about the search for our place in the world and of the human need for community – and our ability to create it.
“Welcome to Replica Dodge” may be preordered from IndieBound, Wayne State University Press and Amazon and will be available at Ludington’s Book Mark and the WSCC Book Store on March 11.
For more information and a schedule of upcoming readings, visit natalieruthjoynton.com.