Nowhere like This Place: Tales from a Nuclear Childhood
Marilyn Carr’s family arrived in Deep River, Ontario in 1960 because her dad got a job at a mysterious place called “the plant.” The quirky, isolated, residence for the employees of Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories was impeccably designed by a guy named John Bland. It’s a test-tube baby of a town that sprang, fully formed, from the bush north of Algonquin Park, on the shore of the Ottawa river. Everything has already been decided, including the colours of the houses, inside and out. What could possibly go wrong? Nowhere like This Place is a coming-of-age memoir set against the backdrop of the weirdness of an enclave with more PhDs per capita than anywhere else on earth. It’s steeped in thinly veiled sexism and the searing angst of an artsy child trapped in a terrarium full of white-bread nuclear scientists and their nuclear families. Everything happens, and nothing happens, and it all works out in the end. Maybe.
Marilyn Carr’s family arrived in Deep River, Ontario in 1960 because her dad got a job at a mysterious place called “the plant.” The quirky, isolated, residence for the employees of Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories was impeccably designed by a guy named John Bland. It’s a test-tube baby of a town that sprang, fully formed, from the bush north of Algonquin Park, on the shore of the Ottawa river. Everything has already been decided, including the colours of the houses, inside and out. What could possibly go wrong?
Nowhere like This Place is a coming-of-age memoir set against the backdrop of the weirdness of an enclave with more PhDs per capita than anywhere else on earth. It’s steeped in thinly veiled sexism and the searing angst of an artsy child trapped in a terrarium full of white-bread nuclear scientists and their nuclear families. Everything happens, and nothing happens, and it all works out in the end. Maybe.
Publisher: Iguana Books
The impeccably planned town of Deep River, Ontario, created for the employees of the newly minted Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories, was designed by a guy named John Bland in 1944. I did not make up his name. Mr. Bland sat down with his No. 2 graphite pencil and set to work creating our terrarium. He sketched a crescent here, a winding trail there, and every so often punctuated it with cul-de-sacs. The first commandment of suburban planning is to have a few straight roads to funnel the through-traffic in and out, then hang them with a necklace of narrow streets like tributaries of the Amazon, bending every way it is possible to bend, to keep local traffic local. This may work well in an actual suburb where there is such a thing as through traffic. In our case, traffic is not traffic unless it is local.READ MORE
Even after they did away with the guardhouse, anyone accidently venturing off Highway 17, north of Algonquin Park, into town is spotted and dealt with within one block by several keen eyes wondering why there is a strange car on Deep River Road.
The original houses that populated Mr. Bland’s avenues and cul-de-sacs were rounded up and transported in their entirety from various army bases that didn’t need them after the war. I imagine a house-wrangler herding them onto the backs of trucks then setting off in a convoy of Monopoly pieces, the houses apprehensively waiting to find out whether they will land on Boardwalk or be stuck on Baltic Avenue.
The war-time fours and sixes were plopped down fully formed. An instant town. A “four” has four rooms including the kitchen. A “six” has six rooms with the addition of two slanted-ceiling bedrooms on the second floor and an encroachment of real estate on the main floor courtesy of the stairs. The fours and sixes huddle around the middle of town like settlers circling the wagons. As Mr. Bland’s streets, roads, and avenues flow outward, the domestic architecture branches out as well. There are square, two-story singles and semis clad in grey asbestos siding, bungalows on concrete pads, and the exotic mid-century modern “brown houses” with vaulted ceilings, which back onto the “wood paths,” winding walkways from nowhere to nowhere. The streets are named after both halves of our existence: scientists and trees. Darwin, Newton, Rutherford, Fermi, and Kelvin. Birch, maple, spruce, alder, and poplar. There’s a constant reminder of the world we inhabit, most certainly all part of Mr. Bland’s grand scheme if not his grand plot.
Our town is planned within an inch of its life. There’s nothing for anyone to decide. On my side of town, no blue bungalow is ever beside another blue bungalow. The green houses are beside the yellow houses. And if you draw the short straw, you get a pink house. You have to make sure to remember the colour of your house, otherwise you might barge in and sit down to someone else’s dinner.
The shopping district in the centre forms a town quadrilateral rather than a town square, a daringly rakish sweep of the pencil by Mr. Bland. The shopping options are actually not all that shameful: banks, grocery stores, boutiques, and a miniature Eaton’s department store with everything from high fashion to fine china to lawnmowers. No need to ever leave even if there was somewhere else to go. The checkout clerk at the grocery store (who probably lives next door) reminds you to buy the birthday candles and extra milk for the party. The proprietor of the clothing store sells you the skirt that goes with the sweater you bought last week. The same sweater everyone else has, in blue, pink, or green. The steam plant whistle blows every day at 4:30 to remind us it’s 4:30. The rhythm of the day and week never changes. Everything goes according to plan.
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Thanks to Mr. Bland, it is impossible to get from A to B without detouring through G, M, and W. However, he did make sure to scatter parks, wild spots, and schools throughout the town so you don’t need to bother going outside of your own neighbourhood for recreation or education. So we don’t. The shopping centre is an invisible force field that stops my local cohort dead in its tracks. Until we are thrown together in grade 7, kids from the east side rarely intersect with kids from the west side. I have no idea what goes on past the middle of town but that doesn’t bother me. My flat earth is complete as it is. No need to mess with dragons yet.
On my side of town, everyone’s parents seem to know who I belong to even if I have never heard of them. I am sauntering home from downtown with a new Archie comic when someone’s mother slows her woody station wagon, rolls down the window and asks me if I want a ride home. “I don’t know who you are,” I say, being well schooled in the requisite rules of stranger danger that are less useful to me in this town than learning how to calculate pi to the fifteenth decimal using a slide rule.
“Don’t worry Susie, I know your mother and who you are,” she replies. Except for the Susie part, this seems like a reasonable response. But I’m in a hurry to get home to crack open the Archie and find out whether Veronica is on the ins or outs, so I hop in the car. She revs up the engine and drives around and about the snakes-and-ladders streets before dropping me off outside a beige bungalow that’s nowhere near my blue one. I still don’t know who she was or who she thought I was. But any brush with pseudo-anonymity, however fleeting, is to be savoured. Like a good Jughead storyline.COLLAPSE
“What do you get when you transplant a young girl from Quebec into what could arguably be called the most unique community in all of Canada in the 1960s and watch her grow up there? You get the makings of a very funny and perspective book.”
Penguin Random House Canada MFA Prize wrote:
“A coming-of-age book like no other. How could life be normal in a town that wasn’t? Carr manages to make you feel like you are there with her, wending her way through a ‘manufactured’ town, where much like Alice in Wonderland, nothing is quite as it seems. Carr’s comfort with words is obvious as she helps us laugh along with her descriptions of a childhood and adolescence that we can all relate to. A funny and thoroughly enjoyable read.”
“The judges were impressed with the grace and quality of your writing, and remarked as well on your ability to convey humour on the page, comparing it favourably to Terry Fallis.”
Much of your story is familiar to me, right down to residing in Village 2 at the University of Waterloo. I expect we were even at Expo ’67 in the same year!
I grew up in a suburban suburb attached to a large metropolis called Toronto. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Sadly, we didn’t have sand dunes from the bottom of the Champlain Sea or trilliums that grew like weeds, but I did have teeny tiny playing cards and I still have the asbestos clay hand print I made in grade 1. It’s probably not a good thing that it’s starting to crumble…
Fortunately I aced sewing in home ec so I could alter the bells on the bottoms of my jeans to make them wide enough to completely enclose my feet, earning them the seal of authenticity. And I can clearly recall the turquoise flower-power print of my tote bag. I adored my white lace up go-go boots and recall I became so proficient that I could do them up using a zig-zag motion across the front of the boot, holding both laces in one hand. Ahh, youth.
You had a rich early life to be sure. Thanks for the memories that were stirred up for me as I read your delightful memoir.
We have lived parallel lives however I am a few years younger than you. Peter C. Newman may have referred to Deep River as “Utopian” however I consider it as “Brigadoon”. Returned many times and the last, looking in the rear view mirror after celebrating my fathers life two years ago, realized it would be my last. Grew up in the east end and everyone walked to Crosscroft, Keys and Mackenzie High. Like you I did “time” at Opeongo but in my case for English. Only received Grade 10 Math as Mrs. Hegney and I did not get along. Neither did I with Mr. Smith which is why I had to take English at Summer School. Apparently taking a test one minute before midnight isn’t considered within the day. One exception is that I did get to spend some time the Shop Class as Mrs. Storey gave me failing grades in Home Economics. Welded a lamp – you didn’t miss much. Swimming lessons at Lamure Beach – my favourite. Camp Lau-Ren – of course – three summers. Jordis’ on the highway and will leave it at this so as to not implicate those that were either employed or with me. A very good and realistic read.
Enjoyed reading about your memories of Deep River. We too lived there from early 1975 until mid 1980’s. As a young mom with two toddlers and another on the way I was somewhat apprehensive about our upcoming move to Deep River however was greatly reassured while listening to a “CBC Call In Program” asking people to share what they liked about the town they lived in. A gentleman called in and began regaling the listeners with the many unique virtues of Deep River living. By the time he was finished I was excited about the move and our subsequent experiences while living there proved
to be as unique and enjoyable as he said and you describe. You were correct when stating “Everyone who has lived in Deep River inevitably meets folks who either lived there themselves or knows someone we know.” This has been our experience as well.
Thanks for the enjoyable read.