New York Times “Online Shopper” Slatalla (Speeding the Net, 1998, etc.) interweaves her family’s biography with the story of a town and a way of life that are disappearing.
The author’s mother grew up in tiny, economically strapped Martin, Kentucky. The town’s great distinction was its penchant for flooding every year, like clockwork. Local buildings were permanently waterlogged, and Martin never shed the smell of dried mud: “It smells like ruin, like poverty, like defeat.” After decades of floods, the federal government stepped in, razing the town in 2004 and relocating its citizens to a planned community on nearby, higher ground. Slatalla, determined to preserve its history, has created a luminous ode to the quaint sign that proclaimed “MARTIN POP. 860,” the C&O Café, the local ghosts. Her examination of Martin’s participation in WWII provides an especially insightful look at rural America in the mid-20th century. Residents didn’t pay much attention to events in Europe. The local paper reported not on the Nazi invasion of Denmark, but on the Easter egg hunt to raise funds for Mrs. Greer’s third-grade class. But if American mobilization for war caught Martin unaware, families served with distinction: Young men signed up to fight, and those left at home aided the war effort by stepping up agricultural production. Slatalla also tells her ancestors’ stories: Great-grandmother Hesta was fierce and loving, great-grandfather Fred hardworking and careful. The central family drama revolves around grandmother Mary’s ill-conceived marriage to, divorce from and eventual remarriage to no-good Elmer, who is the most complex character here. Charming and flashy, he drank too much and chased skirts, but also showered his wife with heart-wrenching love letters. The anticlimactic epilogue, with its self-conscious echoes of the graveyard scene from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, is the only disappointing chapter.
Heartwarming, yet sober and unsentimental.