For The Someday Book

Book Review: Population: 485

Posted on: July 31, 2010

Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, by Michael Perry, Harper Perennial, 2002, 234 pp.

This was not at all the book I thought it was. I thought it was a novel when I bought it (I was in a hurry). I was anticipating a story of colorful small town characters with lots of laugh lines and quirky plot twists. Instead, Population: 485 turned out to be a poignant, sparse account of life on a volunteer fire department. Had I known what it was, I never would have read it, much less bought it. But since I bought it, I felt compelled to give it a try, and once I started it I could not justify putting it down.

I have no interest in learning or reading about accident scenes, firefighting techniques or gruesome calls. It all calls to mind a little too easily an ex-boyfriend who was a volunteer EMT, and seemed to talk about nothing else. For the first several chapters, I carried on this conversation with myself:

“Why am I reading this?”

“Because I paid for it. It’s not a bad book.”

“Still, I don’t care about the topic. I have all these other books I do care about.”

“I know, but it’s well-written. And you paid for it.”

“Next time, I’ll be more careful. Besides, it’s edifying to read something outside your normal choices.”

In the end, that’s where I am: it was edifying to read something I would not normally choose to read. Perry’s writing was solid and beautiful. He wove together the information about calls and firefighting techniques to tell the story of small-town life and the meaning of belonging. Population: 485 tells it all truthfully, with humor and interest, but without the slightest romance about the realities of New Auburn, WI. The whole book is artful without being contrived, and Perry feels no compulsion to paint a romantic picture of the beauty of small towns. Instead, the beauty is in the thing itself, the way neighbors and brothers come together and drift apart again, the way life and death go on unabated, the way one can be both an insider and outsider, neighbor and stranger.

What Perry gives us in Population: 485 is a sense of wholeness—the town, its people and his experience of it seem complete, full, satisfied. Those are rare attributes in our consumer-driven culture where we always seems to need more, better, newer, nicer. The book left me with the same feeling—satisfaction.

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1 Response to "Book Review: Population: 485"

I’m in the middle of this, but am taking it slowly. My pastor actually recommended it to me (someone had sent it to her) based on the beauty of the language and the theme of community. Thanks for posting this.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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