Bird, Kansas - Tony Parker

They're basically good people here and I don't want to sound like I'm patronizing them for it. I think America could do with a lot more of people like this, who don't have all these fancy liberal ideas you get nowadays: they know right's right and wrong's wrong, and they don't complicate it. They're good kind people, they help one another and if you're one of them, they help you. There's a lot to be said for that: never mind how you've gotten in a mess, we'll help you out of it, and the world could do with a lot more of that. I said earlier I thought sometimes they had their ideas and everything preserved in a museum: maybe they have in a lot of ways, but that's not to say it's all bad. Some of it's very good, museums presere old things because they're valuable to us.

In the late 1980s, British author Tony Parker was asked by his editor if he'd like to do a story about "somewhere in the middle of America." Neither of them knew where that was, so after consulting an atlas they decided that Kansas was roughly the middle, and then picked roughly the middle of Kansas. Where he eventually ended up was Stockton, Kansas, although he came up with the name "Bird" (not knowing there was already a town called Bird City) to give the townspeople some anonymity. He and his wife spent three months there, meeting the residents and interviewing them, and then compiled them into this book (also published as A Place Called Bird).

Parker's style was to let people speak for themselves. Aside from a brief introductory chapter and brief descriptions of each person, all of the text is direct transcriptions of the interviewees, with Parker's own questions removed. It's well-done, and for the most part you don't miss his end of the conversation: you just get the feeling that the people of Bird are speaking directly to you.

From this town of 2000 people, Parker ended up with about 90 interviews in his book, grouped into chapters like "Stay-at-home Wives" or "Kids at School" or "Visitors from Another Planet" (about people visiting Bird from places like L.A. or New York). What you end up with is a great portrait of a small town, representative of much of the Midwest (at least what I've experienced of it). There are the ultra-patriotic folks and then those who aren't so patriotic but feel they have to keep it quiet; there's the kids who just can't wait to get out of this small town, and the young women who are happiest being housewives there; there are the folks over in Garland on the wrong side of the tracks, and some from the all-black community of Nicodemus.

What was particularly interesting to me was comparing and contrasting Bird to my own newly-adopted hometown of Tribune. I imagine that there are lots of things that haven't changed in Bird since the book was written despite the time that has passed, and there are attitudes that I wouldn't be surprised to hear from folks living here today. But there were also some significant differences, too. One sentiment that I find here in Tribune is expressed by one of the people in Bird, a young female pastor who had only been in Bird for a short time:

... I know there's the argument that says nobody's going to make a big impression on the world or change it a lot from a small town in the middle of the United States. But I'd like to try and open up, just here and there in a few people, some sense of a vision of their own possibilities, and encourage them towards a desire to bring about even a small degree of change.

Whether you agree with the folks in the book or not, it's a wonderful book that paints an intimate picture of small-town America. Like it or not, here's what people are like, and Parker allows their voices to speak out. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this book—it may be a little hard to find, but it's an excellent read and will give you an idea of where I currently live.

Fed to jonathan's brain | February 17, 2008 | Comments (0)


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