Welcome to Utopia: Notes from a Small Town by Karen Valby

I first heard of this book from my friend Kit over at Books are my Boyfriends, an absolutely hilarious blog that I’ve pimped on here before because of how much I love it. Seriously, its book-based and hilarious e-crack. You can check out her review of this particular boyfriend here.

Anyway, this book is about an Entertainment Weekly writer (Valby) who is given the task of finding a town in American without any pop culture. Enter: Utopia. After her story is published, though, Valby realizes her relationship with Utopia just can’t be over yet, so she moved there for about two years and got to know the crazy members of this tiny, tiny town. And known them she did. The story is framed around four central ‘characters’, although there are many more included: the old-timers of the town, who gather every morning to drink coffee and re-tell the same stories; a waitress and mother of four boys, all of whom are involved in the war in Iraq; a young man tired of Utopia and content to just get out; and the only black girl in town, who wants nothing more than to have a lifetime in music and out of Utopia. All of their stories combined to form a picture of a town that is at once quaint and at the same time facing the pressures of time, the economy, and parent-child conflict just like any other town.

The writing was perhaps one of my favorite portions of this novel, other than the fact that I’ve always had a secret obsession with small towns (see: Yoknapatawpha, Stars Hollow, etc). It was like reading one giant article from Entertainment Weekly, a magazine I enjoy quite a bit. Valby’s style was at once investagatory and solid story-making, and the book managed to hit that supreme blend of the two that has made it one of my general non-fiction favorites. There are a couple of moments where the story gets uncomfortable – the chapter on discussions of race and politics immediately come to mind – but that is due more to the story itself than to the nature of the writing. If there could have been one thing I would have liked to see more of, it would have been the “intermediary” chapters between the main reporting. These chapters veered away from the centrality of the people to discuss things like the history of the post-office, the EMT squad, and the evolving nature of the general store. These insights in to the town that went beyond the current were lovely, often sad, and sadly too few in the book!

I’d recommend this book for damn near anyone who likes reading. It’s an easy style non-fiction that will introduce you to this small town without requiring you to spend two years of your own life with literally nothing to do (think rodeo and driving to other towns as part of the town entertainment) and gets you interested in the lives of people you’ve never met and most likely never will – one of the best parts of non-fiction like this. Please go get yourself a copy, and join Kit and I in the club of awesome people who have read this awesome book!


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Claire (The Captive Reader)
    Jul 02, 2011 @ 02:15:17

    This sounds fabulous! As a city girl, I was always a bit of awe of my relatives who lived in small towns, never really understanding what they could possibly do with themselves (answer: lots of baseball and hockey, field parties with other depraved youths and, yes, driving to other towns for entertainment) so I love reading about the small town experiences of others!


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