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Elsewhere

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Elsewhere

A Memoir
After eight commanding works of fiction, the Pulitzer Prize winner now turns to memoir in a hilarious, moving, and always surprising account of his life, his parents, and the upstate New York town they...
After eight commanding works of fiction, the Pulitzer Prize winner now turns to memoir in a hilarious, moving, and always surprising account of his life, his parents, and the upstate New York town they...
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  • After eight commanding works of fiction, the Pulitzer Prize winner now turns to memoir in a hilarious, moving, and always surprising account of his life, his parents, and the upstate New York town they all struggled variously to escape.

    Anyone familiar with Richard Russo's acclaimed novels will recognize Gloversville once famous for producing that eponymous product and anything else made of leather. This is where the author grew up, the only son of an aspirant mother and a charming, feckless father who were born into this close-knit community. But by the time of his childhood in the 1950s, prosperity was inexorably being replaced by poverty and illness (often tannery-related), with everyone barely scraping by under a very low horizon.

    A world elsewhere was the dream his mother instilled in Rick, and strived for herself, and their subsequent adventures and tribulations in achieving that goal--beautifully recounted here--were to prove lifelong, as would Gloversville's fearsome grasp on them both. Fraught with the timeless dynamic of going home again, encompassing hopes and fears and the relentless tides of familial and individual complications, this story is arresting, comic, heartbreaking, and truly beautiful, an immediate classic.

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    PrologueA few years ago, passing the sign on the New York State Thruway for the Central Leatherstocking Region, a friend of mine misread it as saying laughingstock and thought, That must be where Russo's from. She was right. I'm from Gloversville, just a few miles north in the foothills of the Adirondacks, a place that's easy to joke about unless you live there, as some of my family still do.

    The town wasn't always a joke. In its heyday, nine out of ten dress gloves in the United States were manufactured there. By the end of the nineteenth century, craftsmen from all over Europe had flocked in, for decades producing gloves on a par with the finest made anywhere in the world. Back then glove-cutting was governed by a guild, and you typically apprenticed, as my maternal grandfather did, for two or three years. The primary tools of a trained glove-cutter's trade were his eye, his experience of animal skins, and his imagination. It was my grandfather who gave me my first lessons in art--though I doubt he would've worded it like that--when he explained the challenge of making something truly fine and beautiful from an imperfect hide. After they're tanned but before they go to the cutter, skins are rolled and brushed and finished to ensure smooth uniformity, but inevitably they retain some of nature's imperfections. The true craftsman, he gave me to understand, works around these flaws or figures out how to incorporate them into the glove's natural folds or stitching. Each skin posed problems whose resolution required creativity. The glove-cutter's job wasn't just to get as many gloves as possible out of a hide but to do so while minimizing its flaws.

    Leather had been tanned in Fulton County, using the bark of hemlock trees, since before the American Revolution. Gloversville and neighboring Johnstown were home not only to gloves but to all things leather: shoes and coats and handbags and upholstery. My paternal grandfather, from Salerno, Italy, having heard about this place where so many artisans had gathered, journeyed to upstate New York in hopes of making a living there as a shoemaker. From New York City he took the train north to Albany, then west as far as the Barge Canal hamlet of Fonda, where he followed the freight tracks north up to Johnstown, where I was born decades later. Did he have any real idea of where he was headed, or what his new life would be like? You tell me. Among the few material possessions he brought with him from the old country was an opera cape.

    Both men had wretched timing. My father's father soon learned that Fulton County wasn't Manhattan or even Salerno, and that few men in his new home would buy expensive custom-made shoes instead of cheaper machine-made ones, so he had little choice but to become a shoe repairman. And by the time my mother's father arrived in Gloversville from Vermont, the real craft of glove-cutting was already under assault. By the end of World War I, many gloves were being "pattern cut." (For a size 6 glove, a size 6 pattern was affixed to the skin and cut around with shears.) Once he returned from World War II, the process was largely mechanized by "clicker-cutting" machines that quickly stamped out presized gloves, requiring the operator only to position the tanned skin under the machine's lethal blades and pull down on its mechanical arm. I was born in 1949, by which time there wasn't much demand for handmade gloves or shoes, but both my grandfathers had long since made their big moves to Fulton County and staked their dubious claims. By then they had families, and so there they remained. It was also during the fi rst half of the twentieth century that chrome tanning, a chemical...

About the Author-
  • Richard Russo lives with his wife in Camden, Maine, and Boston. In 2002 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls.
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    Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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