In his memoir "Townie", acclaimed author Andre Dubus III describes his hometown, Haverhill of the 1970s, as a place of boarded up storefronts and neighborhoods beset with drugs, crime and bullies.
As the book climbs the bestseller lists, that depiction of Haverhill raised, at least initially, some alarm in Mayor James Fiorentini, who, although 12 years older than Dubus — he is 63, Dubus is 51 — doesn't remember the city that way at all.
Before he had read Dubus' book, Fiorentini was alarmed by the depiction of Haverhill in the critics' glowing reviews of "Townie."
"I had a very different experience growing up than he did," the mayor wrote on Tuesday on Facebook. "The Haverhill he talks about is not what I remember."
And the debate continues in Web comments on our story, with dozens of readers sharing their memories of Haverhill, both good and bad.
So which recollection of Haverhill's past is true? The answer is that they both are. One's version of "the truth" of past events depends greatly on the lens through which they are viewed.
Dubus' mother, divorced from author and college professor Andre Dubus, moved young Andre and his siblings from Newburyport to Haverhill, where they lived first on Boardman Street and later on Columbia Park. In "Townie", Dubus vividly describes his mother's struggle to make ends meet and his own decision to meet the violence dealt by bullies with violence of his own.
But despite his depiction of Haverhill as a tough place to grow up, he still has good things to say about his former hometown.
"Even the Haverhill I wrote about had lovely neighborhoods, including where I lived on Columbia Park," Dubus told reporter Mike LaBella. "My point was it was a rental home my mother could not afford and I spent a lot of time in the Acre and the lower avenues, which were tough neighborhoods with a lot of violence and drug activity."
Fiorentini grew up in the Riverside section of the city. At the time about which Dubus is writing, he already had finished college and was beginning his career as a lawyer.
After having read "Townie", Fiorentini acknowledged it was more a memoir of Dubus' family life and less a knock on Haverhill.
Fiorentini cites the great progress Haverhill has made since the 1970s. As mayor, it is part of his job to be a booster for the city.
But promoting what's great about Haverhill does not require that one be blind to the roughness of the city's past — or even that there are still parts of the city today where it remains.
Haverhill can be soft and sharp-edged, beautiful and decayed, all at the same time. That's what a typical American city is — a place where the past is always present, even as it looks to the future.