Rural Characters: Types or Stereotypes?

Feb 14, 2016

Today, you and I have the opportunity to sit down at Washburn University with professors Thomas Averill and Tom Prasch.  They’ll challenge us to think about types or are they stereotypes of people sharing our rural landscape.  Let’s drop in to Thomas Averill’s office and join the conversation.  

Tom Averill: You know Paul Wellman, the writer from Dodge City, best selling writer from the 1940s, who wrote the Bowl of Brass and the Walls of Jerico. He  said in one of his novels -- Bowl of Brass -- that is set in a town very much like Dodge City would be --  that at first, a person coming to the High Plains feels like they are in the middle of this brass bowl and they are tiny and small and insignificant – almost nothing . . and then after a while as you integrate the landscape into your personal mental landscape, you start feeling bigger and that somehow the size of the environment makes you a larger person as well.  But I think that tension is always there . . . .How big are you? How large can you be when you’re so tiny in such a large environment?  On the other hand what you do in an environment like that makes a huge amount of difference.  So if you take a book like Plainsong, you’ve got sort of types of people – The old ranchers who take in the teenager – They are stereotypes, but they are not stereotypes. They are types. And there are these types in any small town and I think good writers of small town literature take the stereotypes and turn them into the types of people we want to identify with.   We see that this type of person . . Oh, that type of person, a good type of person. 

Tom Prasch:  And that typing relates to those other dynamics that you were talking about earlier with the small town.  You know, it is simultaneously liberating and confining because it is filled with types, and so you know where you stand in relationship to those types.  And sometimes, you stand very outside of it. But sometimes, that can be your source of strength as well.

Tom Averill:  I think writers love being right on that edge and I think film makers do, too.  You know, working with a character that everyone thinks is a certain type and predictable and then you can play with their doing something unpredictable and in fact, staggeringly interesting and you realize that within, everybody has this sort of genius for  doing the right things or for getting outside of themselves, for transcending the stereotype that people think that they are.

Tom Prasch:  Or, overcoming difficulties.  There again, think of the tornado scenes.

 Tom Averill:  I think the other thing about this whole environment is that it becomes sort of elemental.  You know everything is sort of boiled down to its basic elements.

Tom Prasch:  And I think you see that even in a title like Plainsong.

Tom Averill:  Yeah. It’s in a poem like William Stafford’s, “Give me a house with one well; one tree, one.” You know if you just have one of everything, it stands for everything else.  We sort of make fun of small towns out there for the one stoplight or the one kind of person, but in a way, it is sort of fun to play with that in the sense that it is elemental.

Tom Prasch, left and Thomas Averill, right.
Credit Kathleen Holt