BONUS: This edition contains a new Afterword and a reading group guide.
Utopia, Texas: It’s either the best place on earth, or it’s no place at all.
In the twenty-first century, it’s difficult to imagine any element of American life that remains untouched by popular culture, let alone an entire community existing outside the empire of pop. But Karen Valby discovered the tiny town of Utopia tucked away in the Texas Hill Country. There are no movie theaters for sixty miles in any direction, no book or music stores. But cable television and the Internet have recently thrown wide the doors of Utopia.
Valby follows the lives of four Utopians—Ralph, the retired owner of the general store; Kathy, the waitress who waits in terror for three of her boys to return from war; Colter, the son of a cowboy with the soul of a hipster; and Kelli, an aspiring rock star and one of the only black people in town—as they reckon, on an intensely human scale, with war and race, class and culture, and the way time’s passage can change the ground beneath our feet.
Utopia is the kind of place we still think of as the “real America,” a place of cowboys and farmers and high-school sweethearts who stay together till they die. But its dramatic stories show us what happens when the old tensions of small-town life confront a new reality: that no town, no matter how small and isolated, can escape the liberating and disruptive forces of the larger world.
Welcome to Utopia is a moving elegy for a proud American way of life and a celebration of our relentless impulse toward rebirth.
Valby, a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly, profiles Utopia, Tex., in a lackluster account of life in contemporary smalltown America. The author discovered Utopia in 2006 and, hoping to get past the mythology of the small town and understand it as a real place where actual people live, repeatedly returned to the unincorporated ranching community in the scenic Texas Hill Country for the next two years. The Census counts 241 Utopians, and while many of them appear in Valby's narrative, she focuses on four to tell her story: Ralph Boyce, the quintessential old-timer and the dean of the early-morning coffee drinkers at the General Store; Kathy Wiekamp, a popular waitress and mother of four boys; Colter Padgett, the town misfit ; and Kelli Rhodes, the only black student at Utopia School. While the four are a diverse lot, in Valby's hands, they only sporadically rise above the level of stereotype and fall short of demythologizing small towns. The author also provides too little context for her observations, and her conclusions e.g., Utopians are provincial; racism still exists in rural Texas; and small towns see rapid change as a threat are neither surprising nor original.
I downloaded this gem upon a recommendation from a friend. It's an intimate and thoughtful portrait of life in an American small town. The writer has a talent for letting her characters "speak" and she explores their lives with compassion and insight. I read this book in two days and it has stayed with me. I'm curious what the new afterword has to say.