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POPULATION: 485 by Michael Perry

POPULATION: 485

Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time

By Michael Perry

Pub Date: Oct. 11th, 2002
ISBN: 0-06-019852-4
Publisher: HarperCollins

A perfectly pitched celebration of small-town life by volunteer EMT Perry (Big Rigs, Elvis the Grand Dragon Wayne, not reviewed), who frames larger issues within his portraits of the men and women who fight fires and respond to medical emergencies.

When the author came home to New Auburn, Wisconsin, pop. 485, it seemed natural to join the local Fire and Rescue Squad. His mother, sister, and brothers were members; he had a degree in nursing and experience as medical technician and firefighter. Joining served as a way of reentering the community after 12 years away, of beginning to “accrete history and acquaintance . . . to meet my neighbors at the invitation of the fire siren.” Some of the meetings are tragic: Perry’s brother Jed arrives at the scene of a car accident to find the body of his young wife. On the day after her death, the author helps his grieving brother bale hay; they weep and then get down to work. “We don’t ask why, my brothers and I. These things happen every day. This time it happened to us.” Perry’s fellow volunteers share this attitude of quiet acceptance. In their world, death is not pleasant, the body is a messy organism (“puke is the great constant”), and fire is treacherous, “a tantalizing enemy [with] an undeniable pull.” Recalling various blazes, accidents, and heart attacks, the author depicts coworkers like the Beagle, a butcher whose two ex-wives staff the only gas station in town, and examines the relationships among the firefighters. Out of uniform and no longer acting on behalf of the community, he unsentimentally observes, they “engage in activities that would get us kicked out of our respective homes.” He also researches the town’s history, and rejoices that he is “doing something fundamental in a familiar place. . . . I am where I belong.”

In the best tradition of books that pay quiet homage to community service, place, and the men and women who live there.