Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” is a perennial favorite for high school and community theater groups. It dramatizes the lives and deaths of some average Americans in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, at the start of the 20th century.
It is more than coincidental that James and Deborah Fallows have titled their new book “Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America.” It is a book that deliberately looks past the rancor, dysfunction and division that plague the national political scene and focuses on the ways smaller towns and cities are rejuvenating and restoring themselves.
James and Deborah Fallows have written this book based on a series of journeys around the United States in a single-engine un-pressurized propeller-driven private airplane that James pilots. In the audiobook format, each reads the sections they wrote.
James Fallows has been a writer for the Atlantic for decades. He has written several books and has lived at length in Japan and China. His 1989 book “More Like Us” is subtitled “Making America Great Again.” He was once a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter.
They interview people in towns as disparate as Burlington, Vermont, Greenville, South Carolina, Bend, Oregon, and Columbus, Mississippi. The Columbus in Ohio is the biggest city they visit.
They listen and learn about local issues, and instead of the typical litany of woes and declines that often make the news, they find a great deal of dynamic adjustment at the community level.
The authors also sample local life, going to minor-league baseball games, strolling river walks—successfully reviving towns always seem to have new river walks even when there are not real rivers. They visit public libraries and schools. They say that a revitalized downtown is the mark of a resilient town. They are also partial to microbreweries.
James Fallows tends to focus on local political and economic leaders, wanting to know who makes things happen in town. Deborah Fallows is more attuned to nuances of dialect and accent, and she makes a point of visiting the local libraries which, she learns, have taken on many and varied functions in these small towns.
They are very different places, in red states and blue states, but there were some common elements in revitalizing towns. One of them was a good newspaper, an indicator that “there’s a ‘there,’ there.”
Civic governance is important. Surveys show that up to 70 percent of people trust local government, in marked contrast to the national scene. Mayors often serve multiple terms and are close to the people they serve.
Towns such as Erie, Pennsylvania, and Nashville, Tennessee, have embraced immigrants as important workforce assets. Highly paid professional people have relocated to Wichita, Kansas, Duluth, Minnesota, and Bend, Oregon, accepting somewhat lower salaries but gaining in life balance.
The writers find success in the most unlikely places, like San Bernadino and Fresno, California. They also make time for a side jaunt to Caddo Lake: in all these places they can find people working steadily to make their communities good places to live.
Part of the revitalization of America come from young people, who instead of lamenting lost industries, look around for things to make, services to provide, and to be creative in many senses.
James Fallows writes that creating means “taking responsibility for the invention and sustenance of the community in which you’d like to live.”
Much of America is derisively termed “flyover country.” Deborah and James Fallows flew into the heartland and the coasts of this country and found a story that doesn’t make the headlines.
Their book is an uplifting respite from the dog days of summer.