‘The Garden State’ Grows Writers

Toni Morrison

Last week I posted about renowned author Sir Walter Scott of Scotland — a country far from my country of the United States. This week my focus will be much closer to home: novelists and other fiction writers I’ve read who were born and/or spent some years in the state of New Jersey.

I’ve lived in NJ much of my life — except for 16 years in New York City and one year near Chicago — and I can see why many successful writers have called the state their home. For one thing, it’s the law of averages — NJ has nearly nine million residents, so some of them were bound to become excellent producers of fiction.

Also, “The Garden State” has NYC near its northeast section and Philadelphia near its southwest section, a mix of cities and suburbs and rural areas, lots of racial and ethnic diversity, a large immigrant population, several respected universities, and plenty of what’s been called “Jersey attitude.” All that and more can directly or indirectly help writers write interesting stuff.

I should add that, like anyone who reads anything anywhere, it can be nice to see how writers handle settings one knows from personal experience. Do they render New Jersey accurately? Stereotypically? Evocatively? If NJ is their focus, of course; one can live somewhere but not write about that somewhere.

Perhaps the greatest novelist with a Jersey affiliation was Toni Morrison, who taught at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and was later a longtime humanities chair at Princeton University — where a building was named for her in 2017.

Joyce Carol Oates also taught at Princeton for many years.

Philip Roth was born and raised in Newark, NJ, and referred to that city in some of his novels. I have mixed feelings about sharing time in the same state as the late Roth — an often-masterful writer, but one whose sexism and misogyny were off-putting parts of his work and personal life.

Junot Diaz, who has also been accused of bad behavior toward women, moved with his family from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey when he was six. He worked his way through college at Kean and Rutgers, and eventually wrote the compelling Pulitzer-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao that includes various Jersey settings.

Janet Evanovich — born and raised in South River, NJ — created the popular series of novels starring bounty hunter Stephanie Plum of Jersey’s capital city of Trenton.

Crime novelist Harlan Coben was born in Newark, raised a dozen or so miles away in Livingston, and still lives in the state.

Tom Perrotta was also born in Newark and then raised in Garwood, NJ. His first novel, The Wishbones, shows the push-and-pull of New Jersey vs. New York City via a protagonist who’s engaged to a Jersey woman but becomes enamored with a NYC woman.

I’ll alphabetically add a few more authors with Jersey connections: Paul Auster was born in Newark and grew up there and in South Orange, Peter Benchley of Jaws fame lived for a time in Princeton, Judy Blume was born in Elizabeth, James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans) was born in Burlington, Dorothy Gilman (the Mrs. Pollifax spy novels) was born in New Brunswick, Norman Mailer and Dorothy Parker were both from Long Branch, and George R.R. Martin (A Game of Thrones) was born in Bayonne.

Susan Meddaugh lived in my town of Montclair — the setting of her Martha Speaks children’s books and the Martha Speaks TV series about a talking dog.

New Jersey was also a stomping ground for poets Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and William Carlos Williams; poets/playwrights Amiri Baraka and Ntozake Shange; and playwright Christopher Durang.

Any writers you’d like to mention with a New Jersey connection? Your favorite writers with a connection to YOUR state, region, or country? πŸ™‚

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning β€œMontclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about famous music and musicians supposedly relevant to my town — is here.

131 thoughts on “‘The Garden State’ Grows Writers

  1. Thank you for this: I didn’t know that Toni Morrison had had a building named for her after teaching at Rutgers.
    On a personal note, I spent a little time in NJ, myself, in elementary school, although most summers I went back down south to spent time with my grandparents. Despite being from DC, Toni Morrison remains one of my chief role models.
    Best regards,
    Shira

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am once again late to the party but do have the excuse that my new computer died Sunday morning, and I just picked it up this morning. Having been a whiz touch typist for 50 years, I’m simply unable to type on a phone or tablet other than a sentence or two before getting horribly frustrated. But I couldn’t let this column go by without mentioning some of the most well-known writers who were born and raised in my new home state of Indiana. It amazed me to find that there is actually a Wiki page on “The Golden Age of Indiana Literature” (1880-1920). Who knew? The best known is Booth Tarkington, but I don’t recall reading either “The Magnificent Ambersons” (though I did see the movie a long time ago) or “Alice Adams” — making him only third writer to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction. I have read both “Ben-Hur” by Lew Wallace and “Sister Carrie” by Theodore Dreiser, and I especially loved the latter novel. The fact that Dreiser was an open communist apparently made him quite unpopular with his fellow Hoosiers. I find that quite easy to believe! πŸ™‚

    Another great novelist from Indiana is Kurt Vonnegut. He left home to attend Cornell, but ended up enlisting in the army, then served in WWII. I’m sure I was aware of this at one time but had forgotten that he was captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge. Per Wiki, “he was interned in Dresden, where he survived the Allied bombing of the city in a meat locker of the slaughterhouse where he was imprisoned.” Of course my favorite of his novels was “Slaughterhouse-Five,” but I was also partial to “Player Piano,” which was part of the syllabus for a course I took at UT-Austin called “The Sociological Implications of Science and Technology.” The most contemporary author I can find from Indiana is John Green, who you may remember is a great favorite of mine and a wonderful Young Adult writer, especially “The Fault in our Stars.”

    As to my little town of Mooresville, there are no authors here that I know of; however, this is where John Dillinger’s father moved the family to from the city of Indy when John was a teen in hopes that he’d turn out to not be so wild. Ha! I guess that didn’t work out so well.😏 The family home is less than 5 minutes from me. Our only other claim to fame is that it’s the home of the Indiana state flag.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kat Lit, for the informative, interesting, and at times humorous comment!

      Indiana definitely has a strong literary history, and you named some greats! I thought Tarkington’s “The Magnificent Ambersons” was a mostly excellent novel, as was Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie” and “An American Tragedy.” I liked the Vonnegut books I’ve read, but am not quite as big a fan of his work as some readers are. I found “The Fault in Our Stars” to be very compelling after you recommended it some time ago. Never read “Ben-Hur,” but did see the movie.

      Though not a novelist, Indiana’s Ernie Pyle was quite a newspaper columnist.

      Sorry about your computer problems. 😦 Not fun at all. 😦

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      • I guess I’d have to blame my kitty Jessie for messing up my computer — I forgot to close it up before going to bed one night and, as she is wont to do, walks across it and hits certain keys that I sometimes have no clue as to how to fix. Or maybe it was the non-alcoholic beer that I spilled on part of the keyboard. In any case, it cost me $90 to take it to a repair place, but at least it’s now in working condition! I just ordered a jigsaw puzzle table, in hopes that this will keep her from messing up my puzzles as well, by walking over them and constantly knocking pieces off the dining room table. We shall see.πŸ™‚

        Anyway, when I saw this column lasr weekend, I had my choice of states to choose from. I’ve lived in 11 states during my life (TX, OK, PA, MN, IA, WI, GA, VA, MD, NJ, and IN), some of them in multiple cities/towns. I suppose you could say I’ve had a bad case of wanderlust my entire life, though this is it for me; I don’t think I’ve got it in me for one more move. I lived in Pennsylvania more than anywhere else, so I looked up a listing of writers from that state. These are just the ones that I’ve read at least one of their books: Louisa May Alcott, Pearl Buck, Augusten Burroughs, John Dickson Carr, Willa Cather, Annie Dillard, Martha Grimes, Helene Hanff, Joseph Heller, Dean Koontz, John D. MacDonald, James A. Michener, John O’Hara, Edgar Allan Poe, Anna Quindlen, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Philip Roth, Lisa Scottoline, Cheryl Strayed, Jacqueline Susann, John Updike, and Joseph Wambaugh. Some of them are mystery writers that I’ve read quite a few of (Carr, Grimes, MacDonald, Rinehart, and Scottoline). I suppose you could even include Poe as a mystery writer as he’s considered the creator of the detective story.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, cats and computer keyboards are not a good mix. 😦 But $90 is not a bad price for a computer repair.

          Wow — you’ve lived in 11 states, Kat Lit? Impressive! I’ve visited more than 40 states and various countries, but have only lived in three states (NJ, NY, and Illinois, as mentioned in my column).

          Thank you for the huge list of writers with a Pennsylvania connection — some of whom (including Louisa May Alcott) I had no idea lived in PA for even a little while.

          Like

    • Strange Coinkidinks

      An Indianapolis Indiana native, named Moores, was also in the Battle of the Bulge, but as a medic. He is also an author, with one published novel and one history to his credit: Richard Gordon Moores, my Mandy’s father.

      His novel, “Hell Is Not Anywhere” was published by Bobbs-Merrill, based in Indianapolis, and founded, in one of its earliest incarnations, 1850, as a partnership in a bookstore between Merrill and Charles G. Moores, an ancestor. Her uncle, Richard’s brother, was named Merrill Moores.

      Bobbs Merrill, in 1949, published “Your Amiable Uncle: :Letters to His Nephews”, by Booth Tarkington.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Strange too:
          It was only after reading KatLit’s comment that I looked up the history of Bobbs-Merrill because I vaguely remembered a Tarkington connection, and found her family’s link to its earliest days. Though her father was published by them, Mandy was unaware of the old partnership and the origin of the name ‘Merrill” in her family– and she doesn’t think her father was aware of it either.

          On behalf of us both, I thank you again for reading those two books!

          Liked by 1 person

          • You’re welcome!

            Nice that your initial vague recollection spurred some interesting research. And, yes, many historical facts — relating to family or not — aren’t known…until they’re sometimes known.

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            • You’re bordering on the Rumsfeldian….

              Can’t decide if theirs is a case of ‘unknown unknowns’, or if there’s a category for ‘known then unknowns’.

              Had girlfriend once whose family on one side knew nothing about themselves beyond a set of grandparents that never talked about the past.

              So much gets lost so fast sometimes.

              Liked by 1 person

    • Lots of flooding in my town last night, but we’re fine, jhNY. Thanks for asking! Glad you were spared, too, though I know the city was hit hard. These ever-more-frequent, climate-change-enhanced weather events are scary and demoralizing. 😦

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  3. “Sheppard Lee”, an 1836 novel by Robert Montgomery Bird, begins and ends in New Jersey, on a farm where the protagonist fails at farming, with the help of his solitary slave[!]

    A combination social commentary and fantasy tale, involving the transmigration of Lee’s soul into several bodies, one after another, like Eliza on the ice, before he finds that, in his absence, his own body has been on display and put to use by a quack miracle doctor. At novel’s end, Lee manages to go back to where he started, corporeally.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! “Sheppard Lee” sounds like a very weird and memorable novel. Strange things can happen in New Jersey, I guess. πŸ™‚ Loved your summary.

      Although this author has little to do with Robert Montgomery Bird, your mention of NJ and a farm setting reminded me that I forgot to mention another author with three names — Albert Payson Terhune — who had a New Jersey connection. The “Lad: a Dog” writer was born, lived, and died in NJ, and my favorite novel of his (“His Dog”) entirely takes place there.

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  4. Having read through the comments, I hope I haven’t missed someone else’s mention of Donna Leone, writer of the excellent Brunetti detective series, set in modern Venice and environs. Leone was born in exotic Montclair!

    Her wikipedia entry states that the Brunetti series, always written in her first language, English, has been translated into many other languages, but as per her request, not into Italian…and I do remember a teevee series of her books was made on scene in Venice, but the language for that series was German. I’m guessing there were enough implications and assessments of contemporary Venetian society and crime that she felt it politic to keep the Italians away. She lived in Venice for 30 years, so she might have known best.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! “…born in exotic Montclair” — ha! πŸ™‚

      So interesting that Donna Leone hasn’t wanted her Venice-set work to be translated into Italian.

      Hard to go wrong with a Venice setting — also used by authors such as Henry James, Thomas Mann, and Martin Cruz Smith. That city definitely lives up to the hype — so old, beautiful, and unique. I’ve been lucky to have visited it twice.

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      • Venice was the most enchanting and enchanted place I ever had the good fortune to visit– 50 years ago. We came into the place as mostly innocent ignorant kids, my girlfriend and I, but the sheer mass of architectural beauty all around, on every large thoroughfare, down every tiny street, all along the canals, stunned us with its shabby magic– though by then, Venice was most of all a tourist spot, and had cleaned up considerably from its nadir in the 19th century. John Ruskin had photographs made then, and the grime and poverty almost spoke loudest.

        Our first night there turned out to be the Festival of the Boats– families with lamps on the prows of gondolas, and meals and wine laid out, making their way slowly to the Grand Canal (I think). Some had hired musicians to play as they went. It’s one of my working notions of heaven, my atheism notwithstanding.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Fantastic memories, vividly described, jhNY!

          Yes, Venice has been “touristy” for decades but remains gorgeous despite the crowds. One of my many fond memories of my two trips there was taking a 4 a.m. boat ride with my wife — to the airport!

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  5. Hi Dave, I have only read two books by Judy Blume which were set in New Jersey. I am currently writing about Orange, New Jersey so I’m doing a bit of research about the city and state. I’ve mentioned before that I know many more UK authors than American authors but I am a Stephen King fan (I believe he comes from Maine), and I love Hemingway, Stephen Crane, and Jeff Shaara. From a South African perspective, my favourite author is Charles Herman Bosman and Darlene Matthee (she wrote in Afrikaans and I read her in that language, but her books are available in English).

    Liked by 3 people

  6. From the Garden State to the Garden of England – Kent, my home for some years now. We have some very famous associations, helped in part by its royal connections and the fashion for holidaying on the coast. So, some of the following may not be Kent born but certainly may have seen some of their most productive years spent here. Let’s begin with Charles Dickens – perhaps you’ve heard of him? Jane Austen also spent some time in the county thanks to her brother inheriting an estate from the Knight family. Siegfried Sassoon can claim to be a Kentish lad by birth, as can HG Wells. Somerset Maugham spent his formative years at school in Canterbury. And William Golding taught at one of the grammar schools for a brief time. Mervyn Peake also lived for a while in the county. Russell Thorndike, famous for the ‘Dr Syn’ novels and brother to Dame Sybil, was born in Rochester. Joseph Conrad lived here and is buried in the county, as is E Nesbit who lived here towards the end of her life. And finally I’ll finish with a writer who perhaps put Kent on the map – Chaucer, although he’s a London boy, he certainly knew his way down to Canterbury!

    NJ has a tremendous pedigree for producing celebrated authors! There was a female author who we talked about recently who I’m sure was also from NJ….Turn of the 20th Century…short stories…three names…but I can’t remember more than that.

    I should add that I have Rutgers connections through friends I met when I was university in the UK – they were here on an exchange programme. NJ is a state I’ve visited on a few occasions – and like very much! And I once was in the same bar as Bruce Springsteen – but I suspect that’s not too uncommon a claim!

    Liked by 3 people

      • Hi Roberta, I must admit to not knowing about all of the literary connections that I mentioned! I’ve recently moved to the coast in Kent and keep unearthing these little gems – Wilkie Collins was another who stayed in the area. My husband has just read ‘The Invisible Man’ and he thoroughly enjoyed it, so I’ll have to pick it up at some point. I’m currently reading ‘The Age of Innocence’ which I’m loving, but it’s taking my ages to pick my way through it, so maybe a little diversion is necessary!

        Liked by 2 people

        • Wilkie Collins! Such a great, somewhat underrated novelist. As I think I’ve mentioned, I just love his “The Woman in White,” “The Moonstone,” “No Name,” and “Armadale.”

          I’m also a big fan of several Edith Wharton and H.G. Wells novels. “The Age of Innocence,” “The House of Mirth,” “The Custom of the Country,” etc. (Wharton); “Invisible Man,” “The Time Machine,” “The War of the Worlds,” “The First Men in the Moon,” etc. (Wells). They were basically contemporaries, but such different authors! (Though Wharton’s superb ghost stories were as spooky as some of Wells’ work. πŸ™‚ )

          Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Sarah, for the comment and the humor!

      Wow — you have geographic closeness to several of the most iconic names in literary history! Austen, Chaucer, Dickens, Maugham, etc.

      Ha! Perhaps I (and many others) HAVE heard of Dickens. πŸ˜‚ As for Chaucer, my town has a Canterbury Park, but that’s a rather feeble connection. πŸ™‚

      Was it Charlotte Perkins Gilman we were talking about? I’m not sure.

      Great that you’ve visited New Jersey! (I’ve been in England only once, unfortunately.) I’m a Rutgers alum, and a Springsteen fan, but have never been in the same bar as him. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

      • My friend and I (who lives near the Jersey Shore) always exchange names of towns and places that are common to the UK and, usually, the east coast US – of which there are so many! I always think it hints at the history of some of the previous residents and they’re trying to recreate a little bit of the country they left behind – which is probably not that unusual. So perhaps Canterbury Park was named by someone who came from Kent in England!
        It’s quite incredible that Kent has so many famous connections. Even Vincent Van Gogh stayed a while in a town just a couple of miles from me…as did Turner thinking about it.
        I think it was another author we were talking about – a little bit more obscure. I don’t think she’s so terribly well known – although maybe I’m doing her a tremendous disservice by saying that! I shall keep hunting around.
        I’ve travelled up and down the coast of NJ a few times. We were meant to be in the area for a wedding last year but obviously couldn’t make it. Hopefully in the next couple of years!
        And what a great connection with Rutgers! I keep finding more and more links to this place! Obviously the University to be at!

        Liked by 2 people

        • So true, Sarah, that America’s East Coast picked up many English names — Jersey/New Jersey, York/New York, London/New London, etc. I’m sure a big part of that was the reason you mentioned.

          Ah, a Vincent van Gogh connection, too — nice!

          Rutgers is definitely a very good (public) university — even though it spends too much on its football and basketball programs, which shortchanges academics. 😦 (Football as in American football, not the football the U.S. calls soccer.)

          Liked by 2 people

          • I’ve heard that college sports is incredibly well funded and the facilities are something to behold but it’s a shame if it’s at the expense of other faculties and research.

            I shall keep looking for literary and other cultural connections in the area so I can casually drop them into future conversation πŸ˜† It’s a great way of learning about where I live!

            Liked by 2 people

            • The “major” sports are certainly overfunded at many big universities. 😦 It’s a weird American thing. 😦 And, yes, unfortunately, it’s usually at the expense of academics even though the sports bigwigs claim it isn’t. Tons of money is spent on coaches and athletic facilities while adjunct professors are paid starvation wages.

              Loved your second paragraph! πŸ™‚

              Liked by 2 people

          • The first year of the Peace Corps’ existence, my father traveled North to teach the volunteers at Rutgers University. Have had a fondness for the place since, but for no other reason– I’ve never visited.

            Liked by 1 person

            • What a great Rutgers family connection, jhNY! And wonderful that your father did that!

              As I might have mentioned before, my wife was a Peace Corps volunteer (in Rwanda) before I met her.

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              • It was a big deal in my family. My father lunched with visiting Elizabeth Taylor there at Rutgers (and we’ve got the photo to prove it– an unused snap for a “Life” magazine article). Later in DC he met John F. Kennedy, and later still, a couple of those first-year volunteers visited our home. They were the most incandescently idealistic people I have ever met.

                Liked by 1 person

                • Wow! Elizabeth Taylor and JFK? That’s some serious celebrity encountering! And, yes, a lot of idealism among wonderful Peace Corps volunteers. Unfortunately, the U.S. is usually more known for doing negative things to countries. 😦

                  Like

  7. What an amazing list of writers from NJ, Dave, which seems to convince me more and more of the importance of the presence of people from all over the world, which have made experiences we would never have thought possible.
    We often go for walks nearby or across a plain full of smaller of bigger farms, where we sometimes speak to some worker. Lately we were watching two donkeys when I man on bicyle arrived and asked us in which language we were speaking to the animals. I answered that we used 5 languages and he seemed a little bit surprised, because he had the impression that in our region English was not a often spoken language. The conversation went on and he told us that he was from Afghanistan and had walked on foot to Croatia, where a lady had given him the bicycle he had at that moment and with which he arrived in Ticino!
    I very much enjoyed reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Song of Solomon and I have to admit that I really enjoyed the American Pastoral by Philip Roth and the ups and downs of business in your region.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Wow, that’s a lot of very well-known NJ authors, Dave! I was born and lived in Michigan for many years. John D. Voelker, under the pen name Robert Traver, wrote “Anatomy of a Murder.” He was born in the U.P., which is the area of the state where I most recently lived. I remember eating at a place up there years ago, Mt. Shasta Restaurant, where some scenes of the movie by the same name starring Jimmy Stewart had been filmed.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I know you are also a fan, Dave,the first person that came to mind is a NJ. song writer,in addition to poetry. His lyrics are poetic. Bruce Springsteen, native son. “Atlantic City” is gritty,like the NJ. southern town,one of the myriad of songs that I really enjoy from The Boss. The tickets to his one man show on Broadway are astronomical. Otherwise I would be elated to see him in an intimate setting or with E Street band. His daughter is an Olympic equestrian, was awarded a medal recently in Tokyo.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Michele!

      Yes, I’m a fan of Springsteen, and many of his songs are indeed poetic — with a number of them Jersey-centric of course. I’d enjoy seeing his Broadway show, too; a shame it’s so expensive.

      Other past and present people in music with Jersey connections include Whitney Houston, Frank Sinatra, Patti Smith, Paul Simon, Dionne Warwick, Count Basie, Queen Latifah, Jon Bon Jovi, The Four Seasons, Lauryn Hill, Joe Walsh, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Bebe here Dave !
    Not from New Jersey.
    But lived in Kansas City for many years, so It is my privilege to post about one Kansas City native Mr. Ed Asner , a versatile actor who passed away today.
    Always an activist and always took part in liberal movements , which caused his show for cancellation.

    But Mr. Asner remained active in several movies and television shows.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Not from Jersey but living there for a short period birthed his novel writing – I speak of Richard Ford and his fist novel The Sportswriter, follow-up Independence Day both set in the state. There are two more in the series which I have yet to read. Wonderful writing, totally compelling work

    Liked by 2 people

  12. You had me scurrying around to find BC writers and ended up on Wikipedia. This is a good news/bad news story. The good news: There are over 200 BC writers and journalists who have lived extraordinary lives and written extraordinary books and articles. The bad news: I only recognized one name: James Barber (23 March 1923 – 29 November 2007) who was an English-born Canadian cookbook author and host of The Urban Peasant, a CBC cooking show. James Barber’s famous quote was: β€œIt’s simple and delicious. So quit being such a snob.”

    Your post was a reminder that will never be able to read all those books that are safely stack on the shelves ready to reveal their story. So it comes down to how do we chose? An even better question, how do we support local writers who may never reach the status of a Sir Walter Scott and Toni Morrison.

    Much to think about in the coming week…

    Liked by 6 people

  13. Goodness, i think you’ve mentioned quite a lot of the ones I have read and enjoyed in another great post Dave. Of course I am from Walter Scott-land. And I can think of quite a lot from here but the ones with a local connection as in Dundee, in some shape or form, would be.well, i can’t miss Kate Atkinson off, Mary Shelley, A. L Kennedy, William Blain, Robert Browning, William McGonagall…yes I know some would argue but the man would be perfectly at home on the social media, publiciting grabbing and self pubing stage today–, and extending the area slightly, I think Conan Doyle’s father was a patient in a mental hospital in Montrose. J M Barrie hailed from Kirriemuir which is not far.

    Liked by 6 people

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