For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘small town

Our farmer's market

Sometimes, I love living in a small town. Simple things become a delight, and community is thick.

This morning, B and I headed out for a day of errands. We strolled the Farmer’s Market, chatting with the farmers and all the folks we know. We stopped at the post office to mail a package, and saw a few more familiar faces. We walked next door to the public library, where the librarian greeted B by name and showed him the new space and dinosaur books that just arrived, knowing they are his favorites. One of the local churches was having a small street fair, so we stopped to play a few games and let B jump in the bounce house for awhile. At the grocery store, we enjoyed the free samples of orange juice, apple crisp and chocolate—a Saturday treat.

This afternoon, we will bake some banana bread, put some of those farm-fresh vegetables in the freezer for the winter and read our new library books. B will probably play football or cops and robbers in the front yard with the boys who live next door.

Our Main Street

One of the band parents from the high school just called. They are having an impromptu community performance tonight on the football field. There will be hot dogs and crock pots full of chili. Would we like to come? I can’t think of a better ending for our small town Saturday.

The first time I was in Summersville, West Virginia was at least 15 years ago. I went to college in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and my friend K and I spent our free time driving around the back roads of West Virginia in search of beautiful vistas, quirky towns and unique experiences.

New River Gorge

We journeyed to Summersville one Sunday afternoon on our way to the famous New River Gorge bridge, taking a winding two-lane trail through nameless unincorporated communities. We were hungry, and had no cash. Cash was important, because the local restaurants along the road would not accept a credit card back then. Looking on the map, Summersville appeared to be a sizable town, and we believed there would be a 24-hour ATM there so we could get money for something to eat.

We arrived in downtown Summersville and found at least three different back branches, but not one of them had an automatic teller machine. Not one. We rolled down the window and asked a man walking down the street where we could find an ATM machine. “A what?” he asked. “A bank machine, where you can get money.” “Never heard of that kind of thing,” he said. “Maybe they have one of those down in Beckley.”

Our hungry bellies sighed at another 40 mile journey to Beckley, but we also reveled in the thought that there were still places, in the early 1990s, that did not know what an ATM was. It was exactly the kind of experience we sought in our travels, and I still remember it today.

I have returned to Summersville again this week. A friend and I have rented a cabin for reading, writing and quiet time with God. I was eager to revisit Summersville. The website for the cabin told me that they now had several fast food restaurants and a Super Wal-Mart, so I expected a changed place—at least now they would have an ATM, to be sure.

 

 

Summersville, WV along US-19. This is only one section on one side of the road--there is much more fast food and Wal-Mart just ahead.

I couldn’t believe what I found when we got here. Not only is there a Super Wal-Mart, the leader of cheap consumerism and cultural decline in small-town America, but there are strip malls at every turn. Along US-19, where there used to be rolling Appalachians speckeld with color this time of year, there are billboards and signs for every national chain store, hotel chain and fast-food restaurant you can imagine. We sought a local restaurant in downtown Summersville, and could find none.

While I am sure the people of Summersville and the surrounding hillsides are grateful to eat at Applebee’s, get lumber at Lowe’s, wander the aisles of the Dollar Tree and stock up at Super Wal-Mart without driving all the way to Beckley, I mourn the passing of another unique small town.

Bill Bryson’s book A Lost Continent, which I just completed and did not generally like (see review), describes his search for the perfect small town, which he dubs “Amalgam.” He describes its picturesque streets and quaint personalities, and delights in the fact that it could be located in any state in the union. He never finds that small town.

What I fear we have instead is thousands of Amalgams, only they are not the pleasantly perfect models Bryson imagines. In today’s world of mass consumption and large retail and restaurant chains, every town is Amalgam. Every town has the same restaurants, the same stores, the same products. Everything looks the same, tastes the same, feels the same. Something is lost when Summersville, WV looks just like Summersville, KY and Somersville, OH and Somersville, CT and Somersville, CA. I’m not sure why anyone bothers to leave their own town anymore, just to find the same thing in some other place.

A Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America by Bill Bryson, Harper Perennial, 1989, 314 pp.

I have always heard great things about Bill Bryson. I read A Short History of Nearly Everything awhile ago and really enjoyed it. I love to drive cross country and visit small towns and roadside attractions. Many friends have recommended his travelogues as witty and entertaining. I was sorely disappointed in this book.

I didn’t like Bryson as a narrator. The way he wrote the stories of the towns and people he encountered was unrelentingly arrogant and often downright insulting. The tone of the book just felt disdainful to me. It was as if he drove from town to town, attraction to attraction saying, “Wow, I can’t believe people think this is an exciting site to see or place to visit. I feel sorry for the people who have to live here all the time.”

On top of that general negativity, the book is littered with unnecessary sexist description of women (especially waitresses) that judge them by their weight, the shrillness of their voice and make harsh judgments about their value based on their appearance. It reminded me of reading Kerouac’s On the Road, in which the women were nothing more than sexual objects and inconveniences. I tolerated it in Kerouac because the book was written 50 years ago and contained such rich, compelling male characters in search of life and depth and meaning and adventure. A Lost Continent is only 20 years old, and Bryson should know better. It makes him look juvenile.

While I did enjoy the remembrance of a small town or highway I myself had traveled, I had hoped to discover an appreciation and delight in the quirks and the similarities of American towns and their people. Instead, it was all snide commentary that made me dislike Bryson and pity the people he met along his journey.


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.

Helpful Hint

If you only want to read regular posts, click the menu for Just Reflections. If you only want to read book reviews, click the menu for Just Book Reviews.

RevGalBlogPals

NetGalley

Member & Certified Reviewer

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,662 other followers

%d bloggers like this: