Welcome to Utopia: Notes from a Small Town - Karen Valby

This review was originally posted on GeekDad.

Picture a place that is removed from popular culture — a place with no bookstores or music stores or movie theaters, a place where cable TV and internet access aren't the norm.

Can you do it? Unless you live in such a place yourself, it's pretty hard to imagine.

That's the sort of place Karen Valby found in Utopia, Texas, back in 2006. Valby, a writer for Entertainment Weekly, wrote an article about "an American town without popular culture," one in which the people hadn't yet fallen under Hollywood's influence. Of course, even then, Utopia had recently discovered broadband Internet and satellite TV, and things were changing.

Later, Valby returned to Utopia to dig a little deeper, to "get past the mythology of the small town and understand it as a real place where actual people live." She spent a lot more time there over the next two years for months at a time, getting to know the people and their stories, and even getting welcomed as a "Geniune Old-Timer" despite the initial stigma of being that reporter from New York. Welcome to Utopia: Notes from a Small Town is a record of Valby's time there and I think it's an excellent book. But I may be biased — I, too, moved from a larger city to a small rural town and I found a lot of similarities between my adopted hometown and Utopia. Maybe the personalities of the town have some differences, but we share a lot in common as well.

But why would you read a book like this if you live in a big city, if your life is nothing like this? I think Valby makes a good point in her introduction:

No matter how sophisticated or righteous we believe ourselves to be, we're all so clueless and careless when confronted with the idea of a world we know nothing about.

She notes that just as Utopians had no idea what it was like in New York, imagining that Valby must have witnessed shootings and that all her friends were "Eye-talian," her friends in New York assumed that she'd be invited to book burnings and surrounded by meth labs. It's so easy to dismiss the world we don't understand, and Welcome to Utopia helps, at least in part to bridge that gap.

The book gives you a good overview of Utopia — the regular chapters alternate with shorter sections about locations in town like the cafe or Erma's Beauty Shop or the "new gym," a former water-bottling plant that got bought out by Perrier and then shuttered. But in most of the book Valby focuses on four individuals and their families, painting a picture of the small town through the lives of these people. Ralph Boyce is the retired former owner of the general store, who's still the first one in town every day, waiting on the new owner to come open up so he can take his post in the back by the coffee pot. Kathy Wiekamp was a waitress at the cafe and had four trouble-making sons, three of whom joined the Army and were overseas fighting in the war simultaneously. Colter Padgett graduated from high school but college never quite took; he's a hipster kid in a cowboy town, and while he doesn't quite fit in he's not sure how to get away. Kelli Rhodes is one of the few African Americans in town, and she makes a three-hour round-trip drive every week to San Antonio for a thirty-minute guitar lesson in the hopes of pursuing a career in music.

Valby spent countless hours getting to know these four and many others, and from her stories you can tell that they became good friends. She got up early and joined the coffee drinkers at the general store, made the long drive to Austin with Kelli and Colter to attend a My Chemical Romance concert, visited the Padgett ranch. Even if you don't know anyone from a tiny town — or perhaps especially if you don't — Welcome to Utopia helps you see life from their perspective. I don't mean that you'll suddenly change all your long-held beliefs and opinions, but I do think it humanizes a population that might up until now have been just a stereotype for many.

For me, personally, I know a lot of people like the ones Valby describes and I recognized some of the same attitudes and traits in people I interact with on a daily basis. I know many kids either in high school or recently graduated; some of them can't wait to get away, some of them can't wait to come back home, some of them see the military as their only path to something greater. Valby shows us the people of Utopia, warts and all, but it's clear that she has a deep affection for them and it makes for a compelling story.

Welcome to Utopia reminds me of another similar book: A Place Called Bird (sometimes called Bird, Kansas) by Tony Parker. Parker was a British oral historian who went to Stockton, Kansas, in the late '80s and interviewed many of the residents there. His method was to let the people tell their own stories — in the book he generally just gives the interviewee's side of the conversation. He must have been very good at asking leading questions because the book reads as if all these people are just sitting and talking to you about their lives. I first read Parker's account about three years ago, shortly after I moved to Tribune (population: 800). A Place Called Bird was written before the arrival of high-speed Internet and widespread cable TV so it certainly feels dated to some extent, I was also surprised at how much of it still felt familiar.

One of the things that I find in small towns — whether it's Utopia or Stockton or Tribune — is the strong sense of place and roots that people have. Valby relates a conversation with Sid Chaney, former president of the Cemetery Association, who can tell you the whole history of many of the people buried in Utopia, and quietly mourns the gradual disappearance of familiar family names. Here in Tribune, the joke is that you aren't a local unless you have grandparents buried in the cemetery, so there are residents who have been here for forty years or more but aren't yet "locals." I got a particular glimpse of this a couple weeks ago: our church is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, and as part of that they recognized many of the families who have been in the church or the community for five, six or seven generations, some of whom were in the original membership when the church was founded. When our high school basketball team won the state championship for their division this year, many of the 1968 basketball team (the last time we won at state) were still around and attended the championship game.

That long sense of history is something that I don't find much these days. I don't live near my parents, and they're an ocean and a continent away from where they grew up. I don't know where my kids will go when they're grown, but somehow I doubt we'll all end up in the same place. It's easy for us to talk about the world as a small place when we're connected digitally and even physically with air travel. We have conversations with people from around the country and the world; heck, I played Carcassonne this week with friends in England, Boston and Portland. But if you want to hear some great stories about a truly small place, expand your horizons and check out Welcome to Utopia.

Disclosure: Spiegel & Grau provided a review copy of the book.

Fed to jonathan's brain | April 09, 2011 | Comments (0)


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