SPECIAL PLACES: In Search of Small Town America by Berton RouechÉ

SPECIAL PLACES: In Search of Small Town America

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Visits to seven American small towns--nearly all of which come across as attractive and cosy in RouechÉ's ambling, gentle vignettes. Wherever he stays (usually for a month or so), the longtime New Yorker writer chats with the townsfolk, absorbs a little area history, checks out the local eateries, eyes the local bumper stickers, stops in at churches and cemeteries: RouechÉ doesn't go looking for drama or controversy--and doesn't find it. But there's no shortage of vividness here. The curb-by-curb physicality of each town is superbly rendered--from the treacherous hilliness of Welch, W. Va. (where fiat land is so rare that one townsman built his clapboard house on top of a brick restaurant), to the railroad-town-ness of Hope, Ark., where almost every street intersects a train track. Most of the towns feature distinct heritages: the intense house-proud German-ness of Hermann, Mo. (no graffiti, no theft); the fervent Dutch-ness of Pella, Iowa, with the communal passion for delft, tulips, and religion (the one book store carries only religious books); the Tex/Mex town of Crystal City, Texas, which has pretty well survived a Mexican ""revolution"" (circa 1970); the cheerful integration of Hope--racially quasi-progressive despite its old-fashioned ways when it comes to hunting, Dr. Pepper, prohibition, or Creationism. And RouechÉ is marvelous at sketching in the sense of local industry--the ""Winter Garden"" crops of Crystal, the coal-mining (minus most of the old horrors) of Welch, the cattle-herding of Stapleton, Nebraska. True, a few New Yorker mannerisms--chunks of unshaped quotation, list after list--occasionally make these portraits a bit precious. And, aside from a stray overheard remark or a passing observation (a doctor's comment on the ""small-town disease""--obesity), there's little suggestion of the less idyllic aspects of small-town life. But, if you're happy to look elsewhere for sociological balance or critical edge, you'll find a quiet realm of pleasure here: lunch-counter charm, civic pride (these towns intend to stay small), a grand sampling of middle-American menus. . . and RouechÉ's laid-back, self-deprecating interview panache--which is rivaled only by Israel Shenker's.

Pub Date: July 28th, 1982
Publisher: Little, Brown