Welcome to Utopia: Notes From a Small Town
(Spiegel & Grau, 2010)
Karen Valby has done what I’ve always wanted to do: live in a small rural town; and has confirmed what I’ve always suspected: life in a small town is as terrible and perfect as life anywhere else. In a seamless and skilled narrative, Valby chronicles a two-year span of ambitions, fears, agitations, indifference, exuberance, and tragedies for the citizens of Utopia, Texas.
Valby first visited Utopia on a reporting assignment for Entertainment Weekly and found herself charmed enough to further develop the small town into a book. Though she abides her journalistic ethos, make no mistake about it: Valby adores the people in Welcome to Utopia. The book revolves around four main subjects. There’s Ralph, the habit-bound, retired general store owner who still shows up every morning for coffee and banter with the other old-timers. Kathy is the mother of four hell-raising and charming sons, three of whom have decided to serve their country in the military. Kelli is the only black student in her high school, bursting with dreams to leave small town life and make it as a musician. Colter also has big plans to leave Utopia for the possibilities and anonymity of the city, but finds himself in a holding pattern that reflects the tug of duty to his sick mother and his own ambitions. Touching vignettes of other Utopians close each chapter and provide depth to the town of a few hundred
In her introduction, Valby observes that “there is perhaps no comfort zone deeper and narrower than that of an old-timer in a small town….It’s hard to admit curiosity about a world you’ve long since decided can’t compare to home.” Therein lies the natural tension of Welcome to Utopia: generational conflict in a rapidly and sometimes cruelly changing cultural landscape. Some of it is fascinating, and some equally frustrating, but it’s to Valby’s credit that her narrative kept me engaged for the full 235 pages. The content toward the tail end of the book loses some steam—in fact, the best moments of the book occur within the first 100 pages. There is, after all, only so much that happens in a small town, but if readers are curious about the turbulent state of present-day Mayberry, I recommend spending time with Welcome to Utopia.