SO YOU'RE FED UP with city and suburban life? And you're dreaming of moving to a small town somewhere with tree-lined streets and blue skies and old, immaculate houses with white picket fences and porch gliders. You can see the place in your mind (scenes by Norman Rockwell, script by Frank Capra), and you'd leave tomorrow if you only knew where to go.
Well, Berton Rouech,e has been there, to seven towns where life moves at a predictable pace, and people manage to survive without Bloomies and the Beltway and SWAT teams.
Take your pick: Stapleton, Nebraska; Welch, West Virginia; Hermann, Missouri; Crystal City, Texas; Corydon, Indiana; Pella, Iowa; Hope, Arkansas. All are small (Hope, population 10,290, is the largest) and, though quite different in their surroundings and character, all share a sense of place and human scale. They are special places, Rouech,e suggests, because of what they have--local pride and strong links to the past--as well as what they lack.
Stapleton, for example, where the high school band marches down Main Street every weekday morning, is crime free. "This is a peaceable town," says the sheriff. "A man has got the freedom to go out and holler if he wants to. . . . Once in a while I break up a fight at the bar. That's usually in August, when we have our fair and rodeo and some cowboy pours a glass of beer down some other guy's neck. We've never in history had a murder here."
Other towns, like Pella, Iowa (90 percent Dutch and awash in delft), and Hermann, Missouri, have vigorous ethnic identities that preserve and enforce social order. Hermann is solidly German (the municipal trash cans are labeled "SCHUND") and most of the 2,600 residents proudly share ancestry with the Pennsylvania Germans who founded the town in 1837.
"Our students," says Hermann's superintendent of schools, "seem to have inherited that Old World respect for property. You won't find a mark of any kind on any wall in any rest room in any of our schools. No graffiti-- none. And we don't have locks on our lockers. We don't need then. Our people don't steal."
Roueche's elegantly written essays (all of which appeared in The New Yorker) have a cinematic quality. Each shifts smoothly between settings and speakers, never losing track of the central question: what makes this town so different? And while Rouech,e's use of microscopic detail is sometimes overwhelming--especially if the essays are read back-to-back--his book is fascinating. Particularly appealing is his ability to reproduce voices. Farmers, teachers, shopkeepers, and teenagers talk to Rouech,e, revealing much about small town life and the human condition:
A woman tells why she and her husband settled in Hermann: "It's really almost eerie. . . . Van and I were born and raised in St. Louis, and we had a successful printing business . . . Anyway, we were out driving through the country one weekend, and we turned off the Interstate . . . and there we were in Hermann. I don't think I'd ever even heard of Hermann. But halfway down Market Street I had this feeling. It felt like an electric charge. I said to Van, 'Here it is--I've finally made it home!' I said, 'Nothing but good can happen to us here.' "
A Stapleton priest explains: "There aren't any Negroes in western Nebraska. But if a few Negro families moved into town, our people would lean over backward to be friendly. . . . These are good, Christian people, peace-loving people, but if a hippie group showed up here looking for wild marijuana and everything else, I'd be worried. There'd be bloodshed. These people would stomp on them."
A Corydon, Indiana, glassblower who makes paperweights says: "The week just isn't long enough for all the things we've got to do. Like make glass. Like get ideas and then blow the glass. Like keep the books. Like go hunting and fishing. And we've got to drink a little beer from time to time. We started this business in nineteen sixty-two, and we've been living happily ever since. The only trouble is, it makes me feel kind of guilty. I mean, anything as pleasurable as this has got to be wrong."
Always the objective onlooker, Rouech,e implies only that these towns are different from the norm, never that they're utopias (though many of their residents think so). Each town has problems, however manageable. Still, given the intoxicating promise of finding crime-free, socially stable communities, I wonder how many readers will dig out a road atlas and dreamily run a finger along the blue lines to the intersections of Welch or Crystal City or Hope, calculating the driving time.
Lest you be tempted, recall Thoreau's observation that we "go from the desperate city to the desperate country."