A married academic and correspondent for The Atlantic take a journalistic road trip to dozens of small towns to get to know the people and understand what keeps the community vibrant despite declines elsewhere in the United States.
As the authors dropped from the sky into communities from Sioux Falls, S.D., to Duluth, to Ajo, N.M., to Burlington, Vt., to St. Mary’s, Ga., they slowly pieced together a list of qualities that determine why some communities make it and others don’t. Among them: innovative schools, true public-private partnerships and real, thriving downtowns ... Superbly reported, cleanly and briskly written, brimming with real-life solutions, this is a book for anyone who cares about the life of American communities.
The most surprising aspect of their exploration, which they first chronicled in The Atlantic, where James Fallows is a longtime national correspondent, is how seldom they got a chance to talk about the issues we think of as being at the top of the national agenda. The more bustling a town, the less likely that national politics came up in conversation. That seems quaint, given the bitter partisanship that seems to have cleaved the country in 2018, big city and small town alike ... what James and Deborah Fallows manage to show us, as if we were riding along with them on their craft, which is known in the skies as November 435 Sierra Romeo, is that much of America’s vibrancy is off the beaten path.
She [Mrs. Fallows] characterizes people and their communities in novel ways, reflecting on topics like rural radio, which offers up 'local crop prices and advice on pest control' and entire stations 'dedicated to Willie Nelson, or Bruce Springsteen.' Some of the best observations in the book are her snippets on regional linguistic quirks ... Mr. Fallows, by contrast, palpably fears the undeserved or uninformed generalization, and he hesitates to shed even the most minute details of a town’s history. Straining to accommodate as many proper nouns as possible, he lists and explains ... The only prominent figures in Our Towns are those with a motivation to advertise; the only conversations with ordinary citizens happen in the lines of ice-cream shops and grocery stores—and such encounters offer hardly enough time for people to share a serious critique of the town where they live. As a result, references to deeper matters are comically quick. The opioid crisis, present in many of the places the authors traveled to, earns only a few mentions ... Their optimistic, upward-striving America sometimes feels like a Potemkin village ready to tip over.