Troubled towns make for good reads, too

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Last month I wrote about three small towns, Mitford, Covington and Lumby, that are idyllic, idealistic depictions of small town life. In 1956, Grace Metalious wrote about another type of small town where incest, abortion, sex, rape, lust, adultery and murder were well-kept secrets. Her novel rocked the publishing world where such topics were not openly discussed in conservative America. "Peyton Place" sold 60,000 copies within the first 10 days of its release and remained on the New York Times best-sellers list for 59 weeks. To this day, "Peyton Place" has become an expression to describe a place whose inhabitants have sordid secrets.

Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer Prize author Sinclair Lewis depicted the small town of Gopher Prairie, Minn., as having its share of petty back-stabbers and hypocrites in his novel, "Main Street." The story centers around Carol Milford, a liberal, free-spirited young woman reared in the metropolis of St. Paul. She marries Will Kennicott, a doctor, who convinces her to live in his hometown of Gopher Prairie, (a town modeled on Sauk Centre, Minn., the author's birthplace). Carol is appalled at the backwardness of the town and tries to reform it. She joins women's clubs, distributes literature and holds parties to liven up Gopher Prairie's inhabitants. Despite her friendly, but ineffective efforts, she is constantly derided by the leading cliques.

When "Main Street" was published in 1921, it was a common wish to live in a wholesome small town, a notion denounced by the book's realism and biting humor. In the first six months of 1921, "Main Street" sold more than 250,000 copies, becoming a major best seller of its time.

Richard Russo writes about the working-class life in struggling small towns and the difficulties of escaping that existence. His keen wit and subtle humor when writing about issues that hit the moral and ethical core of his characters are qualities that make his books a good read. Russo's first novel, "Mohawk" (1986), introduced readers to the author's central themes -- blighted small towns in New York and New England and the effects on their inhabitants. Russo's characters are misfits, failures, angry youth, eccentrics, the unemployed and the faded upper class that have endeared themselves to a wide audience. Other books by Russo include: "The Risk Pool" (1988), "Nobody's Fool" (1993), "Straight Man" (1997) and "Bridge of Sighs" (2008).

In 2001, Russo won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel "Empire Falls," which describes small town life in an economically depressed former mill town in Maine, which could stand in for many such towns in the United States. The main character, Miles Roby, once saw beyond his blue-collar life, but circumstance dictated his return to Empire Falls. His dreams of escaping the town always clashed with his obligations and his family's history. "Empire Falls" was made into a movie in 2005 starring Ed Harris, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Helen Hunt.

One of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Strout, has written three novels that also feature small towns in Maine. Her writing offers insights into the human condition and the endurance it requires. Her characters live ordinary lives and have problems you can identify with. Readers become acquainted with not only the main characters in the book, but also the inhabitants of the small town with whom they interact.

Her debut novel, "Amy and Isabelle," (1998) examines the dynamic of the mother-daughter relationship under pressure. Single mother, Isabelle, and her 16-year-old daughter live in the small mill town of Shirley Falls.

On the surface, their lives appear mundane; they exist in a world of their own, not really belonging to any social group. The discovery of Amy's inappropriate relationship with her teacher causes a traumatic rift in their relationship and eventually opens them up to accepting the help and friendship offered by the local residents.

Strout's second novel, "Abide with Me" is set in the 1950s. Tyler Caskey is a young minister tending to his small parish and also struggling with the grief of his wife's premature death, which has left him with two little girls to raise. We meet the members of his congregation: the church deacon Charlie Austin, who hates his day-to-day life and escapes it by visiting a "naughty" lady down in Boston; Tyler's housekeeper, Connie Hatch, who is harboring a dark secret; and Rhonda Skillings, a school guidance counselor who loves to apply Freud's theories to the children. Rumors about Tyler's leadership, parenting, and propriety start feeding anger and gossip throughout the town that test his congregation's humanity.

In September 2009, Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize "for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life" for her third novel, "Olive Kitteridge."

This collection of 13 short stories set in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine, are linked together by the title character, a retired junior high math teacher who is blunt, flawed and fascinating. We view the town residents from Olive's perspective, but we also get glimpses of what others think of Olive when she makes cameo appearances in the stories.

We learn about her husband, Harry, the town pharmacist and his optimistic outlook on life; her son, Christopher, who had to move to California to escape her controlling mothering; Olive's disapproving observations on how her grandchildren are being raised and the loneliness and regrets she feels as a widow in her 70s.

Strout's depiction of small towns is not the idealistic picture some novels paint nor the gossipy back-biting town that others portray, but a humanizing, realistic portrait of small town life with real people that you might like (or not like) to know.

Please be sure to send your recommendations of favorite books about small towns to me at bmoats@q.com.

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