Sitting down to read Karen Valby's Welcome to Utopia: Notes from a Small Town was, for me, a little homecoming each day. I grew up in a village of around seven hundred people in Wisconsin's Kickapoo Valley, and I recognized Gays Mills and its inhabitants in Valby's work.
Ralph and the old timers at the back of the store were like the gang who used to hang out in Hillman's Tavern, retired but still working on the internal clock that had been ticking for them their entire lifetimes. Colter, young and desperate, wanting more but not knowing how to get it, was a bit like my friend Tim, who ended up staying on the farm long after he wanted to be gone, trying to protect his little brothers and sisters from his father's heavy fists. And Kathy, who sent three of her four sons off to war, could have been one of many similar women in our little village, where so often young men found the military to be their one way out of town and into the world beyond.
Valby does a fine job with Welcome to Utopia, refusing to show the town through a rosy, sentimental lens, while managing not to make Utopia and its inhabitants into caricatures, redneck throwbacks to an America thought by some to be long gone. She is an observer, but not impartial; we see her personal involvement with the people she chooses to write about throughout. She becomes angry and hurt by Ralph when he surprises her with some racist remarks. She worries about Colter, trying to deal with his mother's cancer in his own way, often appearing to others as though he doesn't care. She cares about her subjects, but she shows them in all of their humanity, sometimes courageous and kind, sometimes selfish and hateful.
Valby's writing is simple, yet eloquent. She is a splendid storyteller, inserting her own personality into her stories and her interactions with the people of Utopia, adding depth and interest to the book. She explores topics such as racism, war, and illness that are important and pertinent to everyone, but without preaching. Instead, she lays the portraits on the table before us like a deck of cards, then sits back and watches as we sift through them and find our own stories mixed with hers.
Karen Valby is a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly, where she was originally given the assignment to go looking for an American town without popular culture. Welcome to Utopia is her first book. She lives with her family in Austin, Texas.
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