Thursday, October 24, 2013

Just a Small Town Girl...

I've mentioned before that I really enjoy memoirs about small-town living, like Population: 485 or A Girl Named Zippy, even the back-to-the-land city-to-country memoirs like Bucolic Plague. I'm probably getting Mud Season for Christmas, still eyeballing Chickens in the Road, and hoping sooner or later to remember to check out The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food and Love when I'm at the library instead of constantly losing myself to the cookbook section. Ooooh, or The Feast Nearby. I want both those books badly. The library wants me to check them out and you know, I do like supporting my local library.

... as everyone should.

Lookin' at you, person who hasn't set foot in a library in years.


Go now.

We'll wait.

The unfortunate thing about wanting to check those out is that when I'm actually at the library, I never seem to remember to ask for either of the books in question.

Stupid distracting cookbooks.

I love novels set in small towns, too; it's one of the biggest reasons I'm an unapologetic Stephen King fangirl, no matter how overwrought or in need of editing he gets. Nothing will ever replace 'Salem's Lot in my mind as the perfect study of the sour notes underneath small town songs, how news travels from one side to the other, how people whose families have always lived near each other for 70 years can know each other so little. Dan Simmons, who hilariously grew up not too far from my own hometown, has written some excellent horror novels with small-town kids (and their adult counterparts) as main characters.

Obviously my upbringing is a big part of how much I like those books.

I think my hometown might have made it to 850 people once, but it seemed significantly fewer than that when I was growing up. I saw the same faces at the grocery store when I was very young as I saw at church (although the grocery store closed not long after, I can still remember with incredible clarity the way it smelled and the way the lights looked on the floor, the face of the owner, even the color of the price stickers on cans).

I know small towns.

I've written about my town once or twice, usually in the context of really stupid things I did as a kid (check back Saturday morning for yet another example of why it's a miracle I was never kidnapped!) or the negative things that can come from country isolation, but I feel like no matter what I've written about growing up, I've always written about small town Midwestern life in a way that makes it clear I loved it, in the end, and wouldn't trade a second.

So... I have a hard time with books that don't love it, or at least seem to not even be able to make an effort.

I've only ever read a couple of them, invariably the Watch the city girl live without omgStarbucks and wear her high heels to mend a fence! variety, books that never seem able to temper their chilly dislike with warmth.

But, you know, I get how it can be and is inconvenient if you didn't grow up with it.

I'm the first person to whine about slow vehicles on the highway. I routinely tell people that now that I have tasted its seductive power, I could never give up delivery pizza (although that's not true; it's the delivery Chinese that would be toughest). I give friends of mine advice on how to deal with older Midwestern women they know, because I know those women.

I have always known those women. I am going to be one of those women, no matter how long I live in the South.

We all know that. We've accepted that inevitability.

I have Longaberger baskets on my shelves, cook casseroles like a champ, return borrowed baking dishes clean and empty rather than with some new kind of food in it (this is apparently a Southern rule. I feel rude now. Please forgive me, Southern people!).

I don't like to say I'm all good or all bad, fine or terrible, but find some middle way to say I "can't complain" or "I've been worse", or that all-important sign of impending doom, "could be better."

I get that small-towners can be annoying; we can move too slowly, talk in circles around what we mean "to be polite", never commit to anything on the off chance doing so might mean plans have to be changed later. We are the people who spend two hours nursing lunch at McDonald's on Saturday because we're meeting up with family and trust me, it can take a while to go over the week's happenings with all twelve people who showed up that day (yes. This has happened.).

I get it. I do.

I know that it's tough to have to drive through cornfields or cattle pasture to reach the nearest grocery store; I grew up chattering at my mom in the van while we drove into Bloomington to Cub Foods or Walmart, maybe over to Lincoln to the Eagle stores. I know it's less than cool to have no access to delivery, that even takeout has cooled somewhat by the time you make it home, that seeing a good movie involves planning for a forty-minute travel time.

But, for me, if you can't see the connection under it all, the ties running through, the way small-towners catch each other when things get tough? I'll have a hard time with your writing.

I think some of these books were written for people in the same boat as the author, those people who were never quite able to balance how much they miss the city with what things there are to love in the country. That's probably why I can't quite grasp onto them, why they just make me feel frustrated and a little bit angry.

I'm just... not that person.

I was bored as a teenager, sure, but teenagers are bored no matter where you go. I wanted to 'escape', because as a teenager you're working so hard to make your own identity that escape is the only thing you can think about, especially in a place where everyone over the age of 60 doesn't even know your name. They just know you're Randy's youngest or Barbara's granddaughter or Christina's little sister. Or sometimes they just call you Christina, and you nod and answer to it because it's not worth the time it'd take to explain that she's actually 19 and has been in college for almost two years now, and you're barely in high school.

I made my escape, but I wouldn't even call it that, because escape implies I was ever trying to run away. I just... left. And I left quite a bit behind to miss, unbalanced myself; I loved the place of small-town Illinois nearly as much as I loved the people.

I love those small-town memoirs and novels because they are mostly written by people who do the same thing; Haven Kimmel of A Girl Named Zippy loves her parents fiercely and her town only just a little bit less. Michael Perry of Population: 485 is a volunteer firefighter in a small town in Wisconsin; volunteer firefighters are really their own breed and Michael writes about even the weirder members of his town's firefighting team with real affection.

If you want to write a memoir about moving from the city to a small town and the differences you had to adjust to, I'll have a hard time following you through non-stop negativity, without real hints of life. To miss what you came from is one thing; I'm with you on that, all the way. But I shouldn't have to work so hard to find any sense of optimism in a book that purports to be about "learning to love" your new life.

Your bitterness and patronizing attitude isn't new, either. I've seen people like you sneering at our tourist attractions or talking down to the locals you assume must be borderline illiterate or never have seen the world.

I don't want to read your books, if that is who you are. If you can't find a single thing about small towns to really love, I can tell that you never looked beneath the surface.

Disclaimer: All book links in this post are Amazon affiliate links. Any proceeds from sales that result from clicking on those links will be used to revamp my blog design in the coming months.


  1. This is a cool essay -- I'm from a town of about 4000, which is a lot more than 850, but is a lot less than Matt's parents' supposed "small town" of 18,000. That is just ridiculous.

    Okay and this is only distantly related but your observations about the sort of patronizing attitude of a certain brand of novel made me think of how much I freaking hate novels that fetisize the travel locations of the narrator, as if the day to day lives of the people who actually live there aren't just as full of pedantic crap as whatever American city the narrator came from. Because, of course, the native population of whatever destination is providing all this novelty just spend their time feeling fundamentally satisfied with everything because YOU think their homeland is cute! Favored locations for these patronizing narratives seem to include Ireland, rural England, and anywhere brown people live.

    Worst offender is Eat, Pray, Love, which I only read because my friend described its shittiness in such fascinating depth recently that I was compelled to borrow it.

    1. Ugh. I was forced to see Eat Pray Love in theaters, and while I've never read the book, I heard lots of people say the movie was fairly true to it, which let me know I should NEVER EVER EVER pick up that book. I have a very, very limited tolerance for "Nice White Lady Learns Things from EXOTIC PEOPLE" books.



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