Aren’t road trips, exploring the byways, small towns, and back roads of America wonderful? Exiting the big highways, taking a little time with the journey and exploring local features is endlessly fascinating. Do it with someone equally curious and the country opens up, sharing clues of history, hope, community and conflict. It leads to questions about the people and their towns and villages. What is life like there? What is different and what is the same from where we live now? Or from that other place we visited?
Those questions have come up repeatedly on the many times I’ve traveled between Chicago and Minneapolis, just as they have on the back and forth between Chicago and Duluth, Minnesota. Over time that family has spent a fair bit of time in Wisconsin. We’ve stopped to check out Chippewa Falls, where the boots used to be made, the superb pies of the Norse Nook in its several locations, the old-time trains in Traigo – there are always things happening when we take the time to look and listen.
That same care and consideration is a key theme in Michael Perry’s outstanding account of New Auburn, Wisconsin, Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at at Time. When he wrote it in 2002, the town had eleven streets and one water tower. It’s not much bigger today, though the population his inched up slightly. Perry grew up in New Auburn, left, obtained an education and a nursing degree, and returned at a moment in his life when he wanted to write. He’s been writing ever since. With some time on his hands – his characterization, not mine – Perry decided to join the volunteer fire department. He is both insider and outsider in New Auburn. Perry is one of the townies, comfortable with deer hunting, beer, the Packers, flannel and snowmobiles. He’s also cut from a different cloth, an author observing and connected to a rich vein of scholarship.
Crafted from those traits, Population 485 is a series of related yet distinct essays woven into a coherent and moving book. Key themes appear in different guises: Perry’s meditation on the town, the community, and the ways that functioning as a first responder inserts him into the community. He addresses life and death – literally – and participates in the many ways that the town’s inhabitants hope, heal, help each other and die.
Perry teaches us about the processes and protocols of being a volunteer firefighter. They are the professionals that we call when there’s an emergency, from heart attack to car crash to barn fire. It is extraordinarily important work that I knew little about directly, particularly from the perspective of a first responder. This kind of crisis response and intervention calls for a special sort of caring, an ability to shut off normal emotions – fear, disgust, concern – and to be able to treat quickly and decisively. Perry and his colleagues do care, though. It is not just stopping bleeding and immobilizing patients. They have have to find ways to address their feelings and to process their intimate relationship with loss.
As the narrative unspools we learn about the history of the town and its people, the births, deaths, events and the day-to-day. Perry has a keen eye and a superb ear. His observations are sharp and kind, leavened with generosity and a gratitude for being able to pay attention. Perry does not romanticize. More than a good writer, he’s a good person – and that shines through the prose and the many ways he helps his neighbors.
Above and beyond specifics, Population: 485 opens a window into small town Wisconsin life, and through that, reflections on family, community, and what truly matters to us. It is a deeply philosophical book, though neither preachy nor didactic. Perry’s mind and work runs regularly to the deep questions that direct our lives. They are also sometimes the most difficult issues to address.
I heartily recommend Michael Perry’s book to you, and I will keep you posted, as well. I’m going to read more from this northern Wisconsin firefighter-writer.