Winesburg and other Small Towns
Hi! From Pasadena, California, I’m Jill Hunting for the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club 2022 Fall Read.
Winesburg, Ohio—the book I’m reviewing today in connection with our autumn theme of small towns—is one of the titles on what was called the College Prep Reading List. These were books you were supposed to read before you go to college. I was out of college before I got around to most of them, and still I’m way behind, but when I eventually read Winesburg, Ohio, I realized I had been missing out.
It’s a slim book about a small town whose residents the author, Sherwood Anderson, called “grotesques”—what we might call individuals who didn’t fit in, or conform, or measure up as successful. The schoolteacher in the story “Hands,” for example, was driven out of another town because of accusations he touched students inappropriately, with what Anderson called his “fluttering pennants of promise.” The chapter titles describe themes that the characters in Winesburg, like people everywhere, deal with, for example: Loneliness. Surrender. Drink. Adventure. Respectability. Winesburg, Ohio isn’t a real place, but as the saying goes, some true stories never happened.
I’ve spent most of my life in small towns. As a child I lived in Dexter, Missouri, where my father and brother built the town’s first tennis court—which they seeded with grass, mowed, and striped themselves. When my home was Sonoma, California, an outsider wrote a book and said the town had a disproportionate number of quirky personalities; the locals were indignant (though I think the author had a point). When I was writing my book For Want of Wings, I made several visits to Russell Springs, in western Kansas—population 25—where in 1872 my great-grandfather discovered a dinosaur-bird. To cement my connection to the place, I joined the history museum as a lifetime member.
Another small town close to my heart is Alma, Kansas. Someone at the historical society opened a case and let me hold a Sharps rifle like the one my ancestor in Connecticut donated to abolitionists during the Bleeding Kansas era. When my book came out, I returned to see friends I’d made, including the “Quilting Ladies” who meet every week in the museum. Five years ago I won a raffle for their beautiful Kaleidoscope quilt.
On book tour I visited another small town, history-rich Council Grove, Kansas, where a former bank building on Main Street houses one of the prettiest bookstores you’d ever see.
Having lived mostly in small cities and towns, I never developed “city ways.” I don’t know where to park in a city, or how to catch two trains and a bus to get where I’m going. I lose my bearings.
A few years ago, James and Deborah Fallows wrote a book about their mission to explore small towns in America. To avoid politics and lift up civil discourse, wherever they went they asked three questions: What do you like about living here? What is working here? What isn’t working? They encouraged readers not to travel abroad but to pick places in the U.S. My husband and I chose Helena, Montana. We’d been told we could cover Helena in one day. You could easily stay two weeks.
Wherever we call home, we live among storytellers, holders of secrets, unsung heroines and heroes, and ordinary people whose lives are fascinating and they don’t know it. I recommend Winesburg, Ohio, which you can listen to or read in a day. It will stay with you much longer than that, and it may cause you to view where you live, and the people you live among, with fresh eyes.
This is Jill Hunting for the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club.