I just finished reading Lorrie Moore’s acclaimed novel, The Gate at the Stairs, and noted that, once again, small towns take a big hit, as boring, monochromatic places you want only to leave. Moore does, however, mitigate this judgment by also implying that they have an honesty that liberal university towns do not have. Given the fact that the author teaches at the University of Wisconsin, it’s no secret that she is contrasting Madison to the mythical small Wisconsin town in which her coming-of-age protagonist grew up.
Nature is beautifully observed in this novel. The writing is lovely throughout. Moore captures the voice of what it was like to be twenty and discovering, sometimes to tragic effect, what the wider world is really like. I was, however, frustrated by the number of loose ends she left as her heroine emerged into adulthood. Since the narrator speaks of events as in the past, I wanted to know a little more about her perspective in the present. And would have liked more backstory— we never learn how her offbeat father and Jewish mother landed on a farm in rural Wisconsin.
Maybe I’m sensitive to the issue since my first teaching job was in small town Wisconsin, and I spent two of my own growing up years (I was admittedly a slow learner) getting a master’s in history at the University of Iowa. Of course, to the rest of the state this is the habitat of weirdos, and like any other big college town of northern non-coastal America, it claims to be the “Athens of the Midwest.” (Well, it does boast the most legendary Creative Writing Program in the country.) My dearest friends still live there, both of whom have worked with the labor movement in this presumably (to us coastals) most monochromatic of all states. So I am proposing two antidotes to small-town-stereotyping.
Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine (1989) gives us a much more complex picture of an Iowa town, in which her protagonist (a young Indian widow) settles for a while. First of all, she is there, and she and her banker husband also adopt a Vietnamese orphan. The town is in terrible shape; and she shows the pain of the transition from family farm to industrial farm takeovers. I’ll admit that at the end, Jasmine, like Moore’s protagonist, feels the need to escape.
But what about those who stay? You want a really small town? Take Oxford, IA. Population 705 in 2004. On my last visit, I met two artists who have built a life (and a wonderful apartment cum studios) just off its main street. One of them, Peter Feldstein, has produced a compelling book of photographs, The Oxford Project that reveals in the proverbial worth-a-thousand-words way the complexities of small town life. The Project contrasts individual inhabitants as they were in 1984 to what they are in 2004. The skeletal interviews reveal static lives as well as lives that changed dramatically, hippies and conservatives, fulfillment and regrets. Many of the regrets include an awareness of what is out there, beyond the borders of Oxford, and what they have missed or have experienced. I got the book as a gift at a dinner hosted by my wonderful Iowa friends in Oxford’s best restaurant (and good it was). As we walked back to Feldstein’s studio, we saw women sitting on a stoop, some smoking, some just chatting. They had just gotten out of their transcendental meditation lesson. The teacher had been an army brat. Cigarettes and TM? Not only does small town life force an interweaving of everyone’s triumphs and tragedies. It’s, like all life, more complicated than it seems at first glance. Especially if your glance comes from the university town, the big city, or, gulp, one of the coasts.