SMALL PLACES

In Search of a Vanishing America

By Thomas H. Rawls

Little, Brown. 245 pp. $17.95

Thomas H. Rawls is a refugee from the big city (Philadelphia) who now lives in Vermont and serves as the editor of Harrowsmith, a magazine about country life, and as a regular columnist for same. All the ingredients therefore would seem to be in place for Rawls to write a self-indulgent, self-congratulatory book about the gentrified small-town life and the apostate yuppies who pursue it, but here's the good news: That isn't at all what he has written.

At a time when the educated upper-middle class has fallen head over heels for Hick Chic, Rawls has written in "Small Places" a book that pays unsentimental honor to real country people and places while casting a cool eye on those who have come, unbidden, to be their new neighbors. In "Suburban Fever," the fine essay with which the book concludes, Rawls writes:

"In resort towns, quiet summer places and once-remote locales just beyond the urban fringe all over the Northeast, the upper Midwest, the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Coast, the migrants have arrived. The best of them have valued the special qualities of the 'unspoiled' locale -- but, in arriving, they have undermined the specialness. Some of them have fought to hold onto the indigenous qualities, sometimes out of goodness, a genuine new-found affection for their communities and for the character of their spot. Sometimes, though, they have fought out of a mean-spirited compulsion to reserve the place to themselves, as though, following their arrival, they had an exclusive claim on it, a right to lock the gate now that they were inside the refuge."

The influence these urban emigres have had on the small towns to which they've fled is a principal theme of the 15 essays in this book, but by no means the only one. Rawls understands that forces from the outside are inescapable in an age of mass communications and easy travel, and not always undesirable; the problem as he sees it is how to save the small towns economically without killing their spirit. "The trick is not simply to attract new industry to town, to expand and prosper," he writes; "the trick is to do that without altering the essential character of the town."

That comment is made in a piece about Grinnell, the well-known town in Iowa where "one finds the sturdy triangulation that has trussed up small-town America for more than a century: education ... opportunity ... and religion," but where as in countless other small towns the populace is now aging and the resources to support it are shrinking. In Grinnell, as elsewhere, Rawls locates the hard reality few can escape:

"A small town is a place caught in a dilemma. In some ways -- economically, professionally -- it aspires to be a bigger place; socially, it wants to stay small and intimate. If it succeeds economically, offers top-flight professional opportunities, it may keep its sons and daughters, but then it will no longer be, in essence, a small town."

This conflict recurs over and over again in Rawls's travels, which take him from Vermont to Alaska with numerous stops in the West and Midwest but, for whatever reason, only one in the South and Southwest. In the Oregon settlement of Antelope, where "every small town's fears grew to hallucinatory proportions," he describes the bizarre clash between the locals and the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh; in Minnesota, at the cold-weather capital of International Falls, he portrays the town's struggle to get back on its feet after a devastating economic blow; in Ohio, he visits the Amish community of Mount Hope and shows how it is coming to terms -- its own terms -- with modern technology.

Underlying many if not all of these reports is the theme that precious little about real life in the country is easy: "It is one thing to try on a country life in the dressing room of experimentation; it is an altogether different matter to buckle down to such a life day-to-day, to make it a fit." Among those urban emigres about whom he writes, Rawls reserves his respect for those who have taken the country and the small towns as they are and have learned to live and work there; his disdain is for those of whom it can be said that you can take the boy out of the city, but you can't take the city out of the boy.