HANSON — The residents of almost every small town, no doubt, are convinced they have the most quirky people on the planet living within their borders — which, perhaps, explains why “The Andy Griffith Show,” was one of the more popular TV shows of the 1960s, or “Newhart” in the 1980s.
This writer can vouch for that.
In my hometown of Northfield, Conn., (a village part of the larger town of Litchfield, really), our nursery school/piano teacher Eleanor Grant would hop on her bicycle for the mile or so to our house each spring to spend the day with my grandmother mapping out Miss Grant’s annual car trip to her dentist in Willimantic.
I doubt the route changed much from year-to-year.
Legend has it my grandmother once tossed a folding chair at the head of a friend during an argument at a Grange meeting.
Our local nature expert Jesse Morse, who lived (*gasp* unmarried) in a cluttered house with a lady named Grace Wheeler, enjoyed carving baskets from cherry pits for necklaces, among his other artsy-crafty hobbies.
Similar characters people Hanson Selectman Wes Blauss’ new novel, “Murder at Town Meeting.”
“We were just creating stereotypes of what people think happens in small New England towns,” he said during a talk Thursday, April 4 at a meeting of the Hanson Historical Society, of which he is a member. “Who are the characters who show up?”
A Hanson native who taught at Hanson Middle School before his retirement, Blauss’ characters live in fictional South Quagmire (just north of East Quagmire) in the novelization of his popular — and thrice staged — eponymous play with characters one might be convinced they recognize.
“There’s not a person in here who’s really identifiable, especially not anymore,” he said. “We won’t go near anybody who really exists. The fire chief will be an arsonist, we’ll have a fire station burn down — don’t think Burrage. We’ll have an abandoned library burn down — don’t think Thomas Hall — so we were not trying to get ourselves into any kind of trouble.”
His book will be available April 30 via Amazon or the Barnes & Noble websites.
“Since this is the Historical Society, I felt that this should not be a reading so much as what’s the story behind this book,” Blauss said.
“Murder at Town Meeting,” is being published by Riverhaven Books of Whitman.
The idea for the play, first staged in 1989, stemmed from the popularity at the time or murder-mystery dinner theater. James Bond creator Ian Fleming, also took an approach to writing that Blauss emulates: “Everything I write is based on precedent.”
One of the audience members on this night was Laura Donovan, was part of Blauss’ drama group in 1989 leading him to reminisce about her performance as a town Treasurer that was a bit too close to the mark.
“The night of dress rehearsal, Laura showed up with no fanfare … but she had taken her pantyhose and stuffed them with cotton batting,” he said recalling a heavyset past Town Hall official the audience immediately recognized. “A whole bunch of people in the audience gasped. … This [woman the character was based on] did have a habit of telling you that you were stupid.”
Most of the Town Hall staff of the time showed up for the performance.
“It became a contest in the course of the night … everybody who worked for Town Hall immediately decided they saw themselves in the play,” he said. While that was not necessarily the case, Blauss maintains, some actual incidents are included. The book includes a fictionalized table-flipping incident and private plane excursions in search of illegal piggeries.
“No one cared at all who killed anyone,” he laughed. “They were not the slightest bit interested in the mystery.”
A fellow teacher from Hingham who saw the play was equally convinced of the characters’ familiarity.
“When it was over, she simply said, ‘Oh my gosh, I know every one of those people. They are all in Hingham,’” he recalled.
He spoke of town meetings of the 1970s — the story is set in the Bicentennial year 1976 — being three-day ordeals, rather than the one-night sessions they have become.
The story has also been brought up-to-date in a more serious vein.
Blauss brings into the book a glimpse of the racial attitudes of the community in the 1970s that is timely for today’s racial issues nationally.
“I drew a group [in the play] that was totally white-bread,” he said, as opposed to his days at WHRHS when there were more Cape Verdeans living in Hanson in the 1950s and ’60s. “When I was writing the book I felt it needed another depth to it. When I grew up, Hanson was really diverse.”
Research on Cape Verde residents of Hanson at the time, revealed a rainbow of racial designations, often for the same person, on birth, marriage and death certificates.
Town Clerk Elizabeth Sloan edited the book and helped with research, along with Blauss’ childhood friend and Health Board Chairman Arlene Dias.
“There were people who were born black, when they married [they were recorded as] white,” he said. “There were people who, with the exact same parents, he was black, but six years later she was born white.”
They found one Cape Verdean friend was recorded as being white, another black and — strangely — another had “Portuguese” listed under the race heading.
“I never, ever heard the N-word uttered in Hanson,” he said, but students didn’t cross the color line when dating, either. “That was Hanson in the ’60s.”
Years later, Blauss’s great-aunt Ruth mentioned to him in a discussion of town and family history that the Ku Klux Klan once held meetings in the town’s Grange Hall during its national resurgence in the 1920s. The audience gasped at that revelation. He could find no records to verify the Grange Hall meetings.
“When I was writing ‘Murder at Town Meeting’ I felt I really wanted that race component in it, because I think it would be unfair to deal with the ’70s without doing so,” he said. “I think this race component is as big a part of our history as anything else.”