BOSTON (AP) — They are six small states, settled before the nation’s birth, wedged between New York, Canada and the Atlantic Ocean: New England.
The region is uniquely defined by its compact geography, its culture and its “sense of place,” as Harvard history professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich put it.
“The mystique that has grown up over the centuries, perpetuated by the invention of celebrations like the ‘First Thanksgiving’ and all the images associated with the Revolution,” she said, “convinced people that there really was something called New England and that it mattered.”
Now, in just a four-month span, a harsh new chapter has been added to that long, distinctive history.
New England scenes have been the backdrop for two body blows of malevolent mass carnage — the Dec. 14 shootings in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School and the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15 that killed three people and injured more than 260.
Yet even amid the horror, the nation and world again glimpsed the old New England spirit and solidarity.
The bombings were a reminder of Boston’s role as de facto capital of New England. Its sports teams, most notably the Red Sox, are avidly followed in all six states. Its marathon draws competitors from across the region (and of course far beyond) — and attracts thousands of regional spectators, too. Among the injured visitors was a Rhode Island woman who lost her left foot.
An eight-member group from Newtown competed in the marathon, seeking support for a scholarship fund to benefit siblings of the shooting victims. Before the start, there were 26 seconds of silence in honor of the Connecticut victims, and each mile of the race was dedicated to one of them.
So the pain has been shared — and so has the post-bombing effort to respond resiliently. Members of the Newtown group said they would expand their efforts to also support the bombing victims.
“We’re looking for things to pull us together, and the tragedy gave us a focal point — the more so that it happened at one of our defining regional events,” said Boston University Professor William Moore, a cultural history specialist affiliated with BU’s Program in American and New England Studies.
At least in living memory, New England has not experienced a gun rampage as deadly as the Newtown shootings nor a terrorist attack on par with the marathon bombings.
Yet the region has by no means been immune from calamities.
Ten years ago, in one of the deadliest fires ever in the U.S., 100 people were killed after a pyrotechnics display ignited a blaze during a rock concert at The Station, an overcrowded nightclub in West Warwick, R.I. Its owners had tried to stem noise complaints by lining the walls with what turned out to be flammable packing foam.
In 2011, Tropical Storm Irene wreaked havoc on Vermont, New England’s only landlocked state. Up to 11 inches of rain fell in some areas on Aug. 27-28, displacing thousands from their homes, killing six people, damaging or destroying 500 miles of roads and 200 bridges, including several of the state’s iconic covered bridges. About a dozen communities were cut off for days.
But soon afterward, Vermonters began to rally around the phrase, “I am Vermont Strong,” which is still found on many license plates that were sold to help finance recovery projects.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, in office just eight months when Irene hit, was in Boston on April 21 — six days after the marathon bombing — to attend the Red Sox’ annual Vermont Day.
“You feel exactly the same spirit in the streets of Boston right now. We were Vermont Strong; they are Boston Strong,” Shumlin said. “The American people are the best people in the world and they care about neighbors, they care about strangers and we’re not going to let storms or senseless terrorists take us down.”
Maine and New Hampshire have been spared large-scale calamities in recent decades, though they’ve had their share of jarring incidents.
In 1997, a New Hampshire man fatally shot two state troopers, a judge and a newspaper editor in the far-north town of Colebrook before being killed by police in Vermont. In Maine, 14 migrant workers died in 2002 when a van plunged off a bridge — the worst traffic accident in state history.
In Massachusetts, seven employees of a technology firm in Wakefield were shot dead in 2000 by a co-worker. Connecticut has suffered two workplace-related mass shootings since 1998 — one claiming nine lives at a Manchester beer distributor, the other leaving five dead at the state lottery headquarters in Newington.
Further back, all of New England — particularly Rhode Island — was battered by the great hurricane of 1938, which killed more than 600 people and wrecked tens of thousands of homes.
Given that it encompasses six states, New England’s compactness is striking, with 14.5 million people living in an area about the size of Washington state. In good traffic, a driver heading out of Boston could reach each of the other five states in two hours or less.
New England’s initial colonization was undertaken by the Puritans and others from Britain. Many of the region’s cultural archetypes reflect this heritage — the quintessential imagery of white steepled churches overlooking village greens, the town meetings still held annually in many communities, the flinty Yankee farmers and stone walls evoked in Robert Frost’s poetry.
In his writing and speeches, Frost often captured the mix of individualism and community spirit that New Englanders like to think of as inherent traits.
“I hold it to be the inalienable right of anybody to go to hell in his own way,” he said in an address in 1935.
Yet he also wrote in one of his poems, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
By the time of Frost’s death in 1963, New England’s demography had been transformed. After waves of immigration from Italy, Ireland, Portugal and Quebec, it’s now one of the most heavily Roman Catholic parts of the country. Accents have evolved — in Maine, in Boston, and elsewhere —that are unmistakable if not always euphonious. Lobstermen and maple-syrup makers still ply their trades, but so do hedge-fund managers, nuclear-submarine engineers and some of world’s trendsetters in medical technology.
The region’s myriad colleges and universities attract students from across the U.S.; some return home with new loyalty to the Red Sox and new ways to employ regional vocabulary, like the perversely positive adjective “wicked.”
On average, New Englanders are healthier, wealthier and better educated than other Americans, with a low divorce rate and high ranking in child well-being. Yet the prosperity is uneven: Several of Connecticut’s cities have been plagued by financial crises even as its New York suburbs prosper, while Rhode Island has had one of the nation’s highest jobless rates in recent years. Most of coastal and southern Maine is faring well, but the economy is bleak in many inland towns.
For many decades, northern New England was reliably Republican. Now all 21 of the region’s U.S. representatives are Democrats, and all six states voted for Barack Obama in 2012. Five of them are among the nine states that have legalized same-sex marriage, and the sixth — Rhode Island — is on the verge of following suit.
Regional solidarity exists in many other parts of the United States, but so do cross-border rivalries — often based on sports competition between state universities. Georgia and Alabama have much in common, so do Ohio and Michigan. Yet football games between their flagship state universities rouse fiercely partisan passions.
That phenomenon scarcely exists in New England. Instead of interstate rivalry, there’s common loyalty to the Boston-area major league teams. Indeed, the NFL’s New England Patriots and the New England Revolution of Major League Soccer are the only American big league franchises with names evoking a group of states.
As for baseball, Red Sox Nation encompasses all of New England, save for a swath of southwestern Connecticut where the hated Yankees have followers. Each season, the Red Sox designate one of their home games as a special event honoring each of Massachusetts’ fellow New England states. And three of the team’s minor league affiliates are based nearby — in Pawtucket, R.I., Portland, Maine, and Lowell, Mass.
When Carlton Fisk played catcher for the Sox in the 1970s, he was beloved not only for his on-field skills but because, as a Vermont native raised in New Hampshire, he was the Boston equivalent of a hometown product.
William Moore, the BU professor, said New England defies simplistic definitions.
“We don’t necessarily share a cuisine, except for Dunkin’ Donuts. We don’t share a religion,” he said. “We’re looking for something to bind us together, which is why the whole Red Sox Nation idea is so powerful.”
In the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, the neighboring town of Monroe, Conn., began renovating a vacant school building to take in the children from Sandy Hook.
At a news conference three days after the shooting, a Monroe police officer sought the right words to describe the efforts.
“Monroe is a small New England community,” said Lt. Brian McCauley, “and we are helping our family.”
Associated Press writers Wilson Ring in Montpelier, Vt., Mike Melia in Hartford, Conn., Michelle Smith in Providence, R.I., Kathy McCormack in Concord, N.H., and David Sharp in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.
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