If you have never lived in a small town or in the countryside, you might think that a rural Eden awaits you as soon as you slough off your city skin. But those who, like Carol Bly, have lived in the obscure and neglected hinterland know it is not so simple.
Bly settled in the hamlet of Madison, Minn. (population: 2,242) 25 years ago, married and raised her children there. She writes not from the blurred perspective of a wistful traveler but with the hardheadedness of a committed inhabitant. "Letters From the Country," a collection of short essays that originally appeared in Minnesota Monthly, consequently breathes a "huge cool wind of vitality" (to quote Bly in a different context) over the tepid cliches about rural life.
Bly writes with sensitivity, grace and precision. She is capable of capturing the violent beauty of a snowstorm, or the weary magnificence at the end of a day spent behind the wheel of a John Deere combine: ". . . the light, which had been dazing and white, grew fragile. The whole prairie began to gather itself for the cool evening. All of a sudden it was wonderful to be plowing again, and when I came to the field end, the filthy jackets and the busted furrow wheel were just benign mistakes: that is, if it chose to, the jacket could be a church robe, and the old wheel could be something with some pride to it, like a helm."
But Bly's focus is on difficult social relations, not nature. Her method is to paint graphic portraits of the very human problems encountered in smalltown living, and then to offer solutions to them. The "real death in our countryside," she declares, is repression of feeling. She depicts her Scandinavian-American neighbors as restrained, timid, lacking in self-esteem, essentially isolated from each other and lonely. Because they feel compelled to over-emphasize the cheerful and conventional at the expense of truth, Bly explains, they exhibit vague paranoia in political matters (accusing the fantasy enemy "they of all evils), relish only superficial "cute" movies in their quest for entertainment and suffer from frozen sensuality in their love lives.
Bly offers a demonstration of this bleak interior by noting the strings of phrases that pass for conversation about issues: You hardly what to believe anymore, do you?" "If you once get started with all that protest business, where's it all going to end?" or "Well, it's hard to know what to think." Bly recalls one desultory conversation in which the boredom was "so exquisite" that tears came to the eyes of her husband, the poet Robert Bly, several times.
Bly's portrayal of Middle Americans would seem harsh were it not for her obvious empathy; her stance is that of an enlightened fellow-sufferer. Her solutions range from the quirky and individual to the public and communal.
The first step, she suggests, is for people to recognize their need for meaningful contact; the next, that an essential ingredient of contact is dissent. Among the enemies of this badly needed dissent Bly lists such sacred institutions as Christmas, the American presidency, extended family gatherings, the local clergy, Bible camps and the tradition that forces women into the role upholders of civilization. "Our greatest thinkers . . . are the dissenters" writes Bly. "It is the toneless lemmings who keep proferring 'sharing' and 'affirmation.' Orwell and Tolstoy and Jesus and Rachel Carson and Socrates don't suggest we 'share' or 'affirm' values." Bly cheers on all eccentrics, all curmudgeons, all solitary drop-outs in her community, for she believes they are the ones who keep the spark of truth and reality burning.
She encourages these questioners to slay real dragons (not merely argue with their parents): to fire the clergyman if he's no good, to involve community folk in acting out genuinely scar fairy tales for their children (let good and evil be personified: cast the country judge as Billy Goat Gruff), to make good books and conferences accessible through some sort of information network, and to pit people with opposing viewpoints against each other in public forums for all to hear (Bly has coined the term "Enemy Evenings" for this experiment). If all else fails to inspire, Bly suggests a natural expedient: blizzards. The point is to upset the daily routine -- to avoid "business-as-usual" thinking.
Although Bly's book seems an indispensable primer for thoughtful people already living in rural spots, or moving to one, I can't help feeling it is just as important for the rest of us. The book is a serious plea for more conscious living for the life of the spirit and ultimately for happiness. Bly firmly maintains that we are better than we know we are: We all have "holy insides and holy needs."
She writes that all the "second-rate behavior" one finds in American life is "no elegant moral breakdown . . . but rather a result of everyone being told ever since the end of World War II that your image in others' eyes, as well as your own, had to do mainly with your vocation and your acquired property." Rural people and small farmers, she suggests, are perhaps suffering more than most, given the economic losses they are facing. But none of us is exempt.