My book club discussed “Welcome to Utopia: Notes From a Small Town” last week, but in the days since, my mind keeps wandering back there. Back to the coffee drinkers and the little cafe. Back to the gym and the general store …
The author, Karen Valby, tells about the book in the above video. I really enjoyed it, and I think it’s because I related to it on so many levels. Having grown up in a small town, the people of Utopia were familiar, and being a writer/reporter I understood the challenges Valby faced with this project.
She was able to establish relationships with the people in town so that they trusted her with their stories, and that’s no easy task, especially as an “outsider.” I’m from Wise County and now write for the Messenger … in Wise County … and it’s still hard to establish that trust with people sometimes. Valby even made friends with the local coffee drinking group, forever earning my respect and admiration. That’s a tough crowd.
Last summer I joked with a friend about “breaking into” a local coffee drinking group to find out what was really going on in the county, so the following quote hit home with me. This is Valby describing what happened when she asked coffee drinker and new friend Ralph if she could join him and his buddies.
“When I asked Ralph if I might join the men for coffee one day, he sat there dumbfounded a bit before saying, ‘Well … sure … you’d be welcome. They all might think it’s a little different now with you and all … being different.’ He scratched his forehead nervously. ‘A woman might pass through the store but to just come and sit down and talk? Nope, that hasn’t really happened much. But you just come and I’ll see that they be nice.’”
While discussing the book, some of the events reminded us of similar things that had happened around here, and we laughed, celebrating the good and poking fun at the bad. Those of us who had grown up in a small town even felt slightly protective of the story. One friend commented that she didn’t want to recommend it to her sister-in-law in Houston because she was afraid she wouldn’t “get it.”
Valby did a good job of describing the good and bad things about life in a small town, and she pointed out in the introduction “‘utopia’ comes from the Greek, and is literally translated as ‘no place.’ There’s no such thing as an ideal community, not when real people with richly dramatic lives clutter up the picture.”