Friday, September 21, 2012

Nonfiction: Welcome to Utopia by Karen Valby

I picked up Welcome to Utopia: Notes from a Small Town because it's primary topic and setting is the small town of Utopia, Texas. As the child of parents who are both from small towns, I suffer from a sort of love/hate relationship with them. This is mostly due to being forced as a kid to spend vast amounts of time in small towns during holidays and other visits to family. But there is something about a town that is so small that the convenience store on the main street doesn't even accept credit cards...seriously, there are cities still like that...Google it.

The Situation: Karen Valby was given an assignment by her editor to find a place that was pretty much unaffected by popular culture. This would lead her to spend two years off an on in Utopia, Texas, getting to know the local people, the stories, the history, and maybe even a little bit of what the future holds. She would become somewhat of a fixture in the town as people start to open up to her and a few start to consider her as one of their own.

The Problem: This is very much a small Texas town with small Texas town sensibilities and beliefs. There are certain stereotypes about small towns that are just untrue, naturally, but there are a few that prove to be too true. And one of them, is the unfortunate belief that many of them are suspicious of outsiders or anyone different from the majority of the people that live there. This proves extremely true of many of the people in Utopia, especially the "old-timers." And for a lot of the residents, this suspicion and aversion to outsiders and those that are different breeds into full-blown racism. Valby is witness to casual uses of the 'N' word, and she gets the full story of what it is like being the only black student in a small high school when she talks to Kelli, whose family is the only black family in the town.

And this suspicion of outsiders extends to Valby herself. At first residents are fairly tight-lipped. But even once she gets enough for the initial article, people turn outright hostile as they feel deceived and mis-represented. And the fact that Valby is from New York City doesn't help engender any confidence in them. It is the general belief that New York is full of crime and evil, and is just one example of the world outside Utopia gone horribly wrong. But Valby sticks with it, and eventually she comes out with a book full of real people trying to navigate their lives in a town that half cannot wait to leave, and the other half refuse to leave, and hope that it never changes.

Genre, Theme, History: Welcome to Utopia has been categorized as a memoir, as it is a sort of snap-shot of one reporters time in a small Texas town. Obvious themes include small town life, racism, aversion to change, the reach of popular culture, and also, I think, the need to belong to a community. Many of the old-timers are able to give Valby a pretty detailed history of the town that often included some people that have passed on, buildings that no longer exists, and families that have moved away. For some it is that history that makes them want to stay, but for others that just isn't enough, and the future doesn't look bright enough to keep them from leaving.

My Verdict: For anyone who has an appreciation or even the slightest curiosities about small towns, this is a book worth reading. Utopia is a place that lacks many modern conveniences that we big city folk tend to take for granted. The people are holding onto certain values that many of the bigger places probably let go of too quickly, but they are also holding onto a few that they definitely should have let go of along with the rest of us. And most importantly with a nonfiction book, Valby is honest about her experience. Yes the people are endearing. Yes the people eventually welcomed her. And yes, there is a sense of community in this place that can be hard to find. But the people can also be extremely prejudiced, against a lot of different things. And even after Valby had spent two years here, upon leaving and upon publication of the book, she has come to feel she is no longer welcome in Utopia, once again becoming a suspicious outsider. She doesn't paint this quaint little town as just a hidden gem in the heart of Texas. It is a town like any other with its villains and heroes trying to usher Utopia through the 21st century.

Favorite Moment: Ralph, an old-timer believes he has offended Valby, whom he has nicknamed "Cricket," with one of his foolish (by his own admission) and racist remarks. While she is offended, she isn't quite as hurt as he believes she is. But it leads this hardened and usually unbendable older man to apologize to her. And his realization of what he thinks he has done almost brings him to tears. It almost brought me to tears too.

Recommended Reading: I decided to go with small town life in a different century and in a different country for this week's recommended reading. George Eliot's Middlemarch is a snap shot of provincial life in 19th century England. And I found quite a few similarities in themes between the two books. Although, I will warn you, Middlemarch is much much longer...

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