18 September 2007

You thought Lake Wobegon was small

As I was scanning the shelves of new books at the Amery Library, a librarian at the front desk asked if I read Population 485. "It's over in 921P," she said as another librarian waked down the aisle, picked the book off a shelf, walked over, and handed it to me.

The title hadn't rung a bell, but as I read the book jacket I recalled having heard of Michael Perry's book when it was published about 5 years ago. It's complete title is Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time.

Michael Perry, native of the rural northern Wisconsin, ranch hand, nurse, farm worker, and volunteer EMT, had returned to his home township because he needed a place to belong; a place to write poety and essays.

Population 485 is a collection of essays and episodes in the first years after his return to New Auburn, Wisconsin. They are about life and death, community and self identity, family and individualism. Perry writes well and digs up literary references now and again to supplement his own trenchant observations.

For me he is at his best reflecting on his own mortality while dealing with the dead and dying on emergency runs. His reflections are a lot like my own since that day a few years ago that a large truck bumper flashed by the end of my nose and the door of my car (touching neither). He is a bit more poetic and he's seen more examples of death and near-death than I have. But our attitudes are similar.

I also enjoyed his attempts to explain to himself and his readers his wide tastes. How is it, he asks himself and us, that he can take joy in classical orchestral music, modern dance performed by an aging queen and his partner, polka dancers at a wedding, and Friday night karaoke and the local tavern?

The part I don't get? Small towns.

I read Carol Bly, figuring I'd missed something big while hating nearly every minute of growing up in a small town. Bly did make the point that as a child and teen ager, I probably missed a lot of the diversity that existed. Point taken. Otherwise, no help there. I read Kathleen Norris trying to see if I'd missed something spritual about small town life. No help there either. Norris convinced me that spirituality is what you bring to a place. Any place.

Perry ran home to the small town to find a community to belong to. He signed on with the volunteer fire department to help out and be a contributing member of the community. But he gets out of town often. He goes on book tours and speaking circuits. Then he goes home.

In spite of his efforts, it's not for me. When I tell urbanites that I live in Northfield, they often remark, "That must be a wonderful small town to live in." Well, it's pretty good, but the reasons I like Northfield are the reasons it's not a small town. There are two colleges in Northfield, with lots of interesting people, guest speakers, and occasional guest performers. I like that.

I'd be a lot happier living closer to more than college and community theaters, more than college and art guild exhibits, more than a tacky, 3-screen theater that shows only high grossing Hollywood flicks. But there are compromises and it's easy to get embedded in a community even if it's not ideal. Maybe it's even easier in a town of 485 than in a town of 12,000 (plus 5,000 college students).

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