From Brooklyn to Worthington, Minnesota

Novelist Tim O’Brien revisits his past to come to terms with his rural hometown

"My memories of Worthington are ... colored by what went on with my father," says Tim O'Brien. (Layne Kennedy)
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A few months ago, when I paid a return visit to Worthington, a deep and familiar sadness settled inside me as I approached the town on Highway 60. The flat, repetitive landscape carried the feel of eternity, utterly without limit, reaching off toward a vast horizon just as our lives do. Maybe I was feeling old. Maybe, like my father, I was conscious of my own lost youth.

I stayed in Worthington only a short while, but long enough to discover that much had changed. In place of the almost entirely white community of 50 years ago, I found a town in which 42 languages or dialects are spoken, a place teeming with immigrants from Laos, Peru, Ethiopia, Sudan, Thailand, Vietnam and Mexico. Soccer is played on the field where I once booted ground balls. On the premises of the old Coast to Coast hardware store is a thriving establishment called Top Asian Foods; the Comunidad Cristiana de Worth­­ington occupies the site of a restaurant where I once tried to bribe high-school dates with Cokes and burgers. In the town's phone book, alongside the Andersons and Jensens of my youth, there were such surnames as Ngamsang and Ngoc and Flores and Figueroa.

The new, cosmopolitan Worthington, with a population of around 11,000, did not arise without tensions and resentments. A county Web page listing incarcerations contains a hefty percentage of Spanish, Asian and African names, and, as might be expected, few newcomers are among Worthington's most prosperous citizens. Barriers of language and tradition haven't completely vanished.

But the sadness I'd felt on returning home was replaced by a surprised, even shocked admiration for the community's flexibility and resilience. (If towns could suffer heart attacks, I would've imagined Worthington dropping stone-dead at such radical change.) I was astonished, yes, and I was also a little proud of the place. Whatever its growing pains and residual problems, the insular, homog­enized community of my youth had managed to accept and accommodate a truly amazing new diversity.

Near the end of my visit, I stopped briefly in front of my old house on 11th Avenue. The day was sunny and still. The house seemed deserted. For a while I just sat there, feeling all kinds of things, half hoping for some closing benediction. I suppose I was seeking ghosts from my past. Maybe a glimpse of my dad. Maybe the two of us playing catch on a summer afternoon. But of course he was gone now, and so was the town I grew up in.

Tim O'Brien's books include Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried.


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