Monday, November 22, 2010

Recommended read: Welcome to Utopia

Welcome to Utopia: Notes from a Small Town
by Karen Valby
976.4 VAL
Find it in the catalog!

I picked this book off the shelf because I remember reading Valby's original article "Welcome to Utopia" in an issue of Entertainment Weekly. Utopia, Texas, is a small ranching town that has only recently been exposed to pop culture through the Internet and endless cable stations. In the book Valby focuses on four people: a retired general store owner, Ralph; a waitress and mom of three sons serving overseas, Kathy; a twenty-something planning on leaving Utopia, Colter; and a teenage girl, one of the few black people in town, who dreams of moving to Austin after graduation to pursue a music career, Kelli. Every other chapter Valby writes about a specific institution in town, such as the Pico Gas Station, Post Office, and Waresville Cemetery. These short chapters provide vivid snapshots of Utopia by sharing stories and memories of Utopians.

In her writing Valby allows the townspeople to retain their voices so the reader gets a better picture of what life in Utopia means to them. If you read this book I think you'll become attached to the people Valby interviews; I found myself very invested in learning about Colter and Kelli especially. Colter often makes the long drive out of town to see the newest movies, buys unique clothing items for his wardrobe off eBay and thrift shops, and keeps insisting he will move away to go to school, but hasn't followed through on that change yet. Kelli and her family (her father is black and mother is white) provide an interesting point of view on the town, as they are in many ways considered to be outsiders, even though Kelli's mother and grandparents grew up in Utopia.

Each morning the coffee drinkers (including Ralph) meet at the store to talk; as Valby's interviews take place at the end of George W. Bush's term in office and during the 2008 election, politics is one of the topics on their minds. Several townspeople make no excuses for their prejudices and opinions, including one man, Milton, who votes Republican for the first time in his life instead of voting for Barack Obama because Obama is black.

Throughout the book Valby writes about how the Utopians give her a hard time about living in New York City and ask her how she could stand the smell, the rude people, etc. The assumptions they have about big city life are probably comparable to how people in more metropolitan areas view living in a small town. After you read Welcome to Utopia maybe some of your assumptions about small town life will be challenged just like my assumptions were.