For a time, Kevin Fenton’s boyhood in Rollingstone was nearly perfect, an image frozen and captured in a Norman Rockwell painting.
Then his parents lost the farm. The school closed. His father, long sick and wounded, passed away. And Fenton, as boys do, grew up and moved away.
Decades later Fenton has returned, in both body and spirit, to explore his childhood in his new memoir, “Leaving Rollingstone,” which comes a few years after his acclaimed debut novel, “Merit Badges.”
“Leaving Rollingstone” paints a rich backdrop of a time and place that no longer exists, of a boy’s yearnings and dreams matched against a life both idyll and tragic that in many ways only became real when he returned to investigate. Fenton’s recollection is fierce but his resulting grief is cool as he details a childhood simultaneously universal and as unique as the product images and brands that inspired an adulthood spent in advertising.
Fenton will read from his book Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Winona County Historical Society. He spoke with the Daily News recently about the long journey of writing the book, how it changed his views on his town and family, and when he realized he couldn't go home again. The interview has been edited for clarity.
What led you to write a memoir?
I always wanted to write about Rollingstone. Because it was an experience I had when I was younger, I didn’t feel like writing a novel about it … There are universal elements to leaving Rollingstone in that it is a small town, but I wanted to capture the particularity of what was lost when the town changed.
The focus on my family seemed natural because as a kid you got everything through your family. The time my family was really intact, and the time my family was living in Rollingstone, are basically the same time periods ... I always knew there was something there that was important to me, undigested in my past.
How did you rediscover your story?
I got the bare bones of the narrative by myself. I went back and especially talked to my mom and my brother. Some of the complexity came from their viewpoints. When I thought of the story it originally was a very simple narrative, that my dad heroically tried to keep farming and wasn’t able to. Then, looking back on it, that was a little stubborn. It may not have been the wisest thing to keep farming when you have that medical condition. My mom reinforced that but also understood what she was doing was very idealistic.
Did you come to see yourself, your family differently?
There’s the caveat that writing is not therapy. But it kind of is. The act of getting stuff out helps to resolve it. But you can also look at yourself from a slight distance, oh, this is what I’m about. It gives you a certain sense of who you are.
I realized not exactly the dark side of my dad, but viewed in a different light, his actions weren’t quite as heroic as I thought they were. But I also realized that if my family was just my mom, we’d be straightforward, ethical, upright people, but we wouldn’t be very much fun. Dad knew how to enjoy life and taught us to enjoy life.
What else did you learn about your dad?
I think I’m stressed out because I’m a healthy man who has a good job but I still find life daunting at times. But how much stress he was under? As a kid you don’t think about that. That was one of the real accomplishments of my parents, and of many parents that time and place, that kids didn’t think about the kind of stress their parents were under.
Were you afraid of anything when writing the book?
There were a couple of things I was afraid of. One was that I was wrong. Based on the feedback I’ve received from people in Rollingstone, nobody said I got it wrong. One woman, class of ’62, sent me an email. She lives up in Calgary now, she’s been telling these stories to her grandchildren for so long she wasn’t sure if they were fact or fiction anymore. When she read the book and saw them more or less confirmed, it was really reassuring.
The second was that if I found out the real truth I would be completely bummed out. That didn’t happen, either, because as an adult I wasn’t completely shocked to learn that my parents were human. It didn’t shock me to learn adults behaved badly.
What was your biggest realization when writing the memoir?
Other than (who my dad was), the biggest realization is that I wanted to break up with Rollingstone before it broke up with me. I would not have stayed in Rollingstone. I’m not a farmer. I’m not any good at it. In the culture available at the time I found my inspiration to do advertising. I was surprised at how my career as an ad writer, how early that began, that among my first memories was my awareness of logos, of brands, of popular culture. There were things I enjoyed I didn’t even have language for yet. Like baseball cards, the design. I didn’t understand what attracted me about them, but in retrospect it was really clear.
How did your family respond?
Unfortunately, my mom passed away a year before it was published. She was fine with the draft of it. She’s a very honest woman. If anyone is going to disagree with it, it’s my sister Sheila. We can’t agree on what happened last Tuesday. We’ll go to the same party and have two very different reports on what happened.
How often do you return to the area?
I try to get back a couple times a year. More when my mom was alive. I still have some really good friends in Winona, have some family in Winona, and I just enjoy the town. The biggest surprise to me was when I went to law school, I basically stayed in the Twin Cities for three years, and when I came back all my high-school friends had moved away. It used to be my town with my people in it. It changed into a town where I knew a few people, but it wasn’t my town any more.
Did exploring your past change the way you live your life today?
I kept getting this weird question, phrased the same way: Aren’t you too young to write a memoir? I realized what they were actually asking was, are you famous enough to write a memoir? As I thought about that question, my response was, I’m 54 years old, and when cardiologists see me they weep. I’m not too young to do anything. That realization allowed me to answer with an emphatic no.
Maybe it was more the publication of the memoir than the actual completion, it’s weird, it’s suddenly not entirely yours any more, just an object in the world. That’s made me think a bit more about my mortality. In some ways it’s an unpleasant thing. But it made me realize it’s time to stop running around and start enjoying life more.