Amidst all of the angst about class border-crossing, all of the pain in the voices of those who write their narratives of mobility, all the frustration of those who continue to chronicle the classism in their lives, I’ve stumbled upon a writer from among my people back in rural Wisconsin who suggests that maybe, in the right circumstances, you can go home again.
I’ve been working through the essays in Michael Perry’s Truck, a Love Story, and Population 485: Meeting your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, and finally, Off Main Street.
Perry grew up on a farm in a town not far my home town, smaller than where I come from but populated, it seems, by many of the same characters. And after college, after leaving his nursing career to write full-time, after living in Europe and traveling in Central America, he came home, bought a house, and writes there now at a window that looks down over Main Street. He joined the volunteer fire department, and his writing is often interrupted by barn fires and wrecks on the highway. On these emergency calls, he works beside his mother and brothers to save the lives and property of people he’s known since childhood.
And he deeply respects them, writes about them without patronizing, without irony. Truck is about (among many other things) restoring his 1951 L-120 International Harvester pickup truck under the tolerant, amused eye of his infinitely more skilled working-class brother-in-law.
I’ve spent the last hour paging again through his chapter “My People” from 485 , looking for the right quote to include here, knowing that of all he’s written in his three books, this is the place where he speaks most directly to the questions of belonging, identity, and going back home. I simply can’t find that single quote. This is not pithy academic writing. This is a chapter of inseparable stories about deer hunting, elderly gay modern dancers, a smelt fry, poetry readings, lunch with one’s publisher in New York and, of course, the Packers. Perhaps you could just go find a copy and read it.
These are not books about politics, about the ways in which small towns like his (and mine) are on the brink of economic devastation if not already there, about the more general state of the world. They are about belonging and dignity and loyalty.
And now a confession.
Michael Perry came to town recently for a book reading. It had been on my calendar for weeks. The room was packed — many people wearing Fleet Farm t-shirts and Packer caps. It felt like a reunion among strangers.
And the confession part: When Michael opened his mouth to read, I was stunned –barely consciously, and only for a moment — that he sounded exactly like my people: the long nasal vowels, the clipped consonants, the cadences that I fall back into when I’m home, the familiar sounds of my brother-in-law, my nieces, my mother.
And the fact that I was momentarily stunned reminded me that unlike him, I’m still working on this project of figuring out how to connect the dots from where I’m from to where I am now; from understanding my people intellectually and still knowing them in my heart and soul; of realizing, that in spite of the more theoretical understanding that I might bring to this work , I am still surprised in ways that make me cringe that someone who writes this beautifully could be this much like the people I left behind.
And in the end? Perry writes of something that I do understand deep within my being. Among our people, when distances and differences threaten to divide, we always come back to the very same deep connection. And that is simply this: