Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Apparently, Small Towns Suck

I wrote this post just after reading these books over New Year's weekend, but then realized I couldn't publish it, as one of the books was on the CYBILS short list, and judges can't share opinions on the books during the judging period.  So here it is now.

I've just come off of reading five books in three days.  I enjoyed them all; they were all quite different from each other, given that they all fell into the general category of realistic fiction.

Three of the books were set in small towns, and in all three of those books, the protagonists were miserable, and desperate to escape.  The towns became malevolent characters in their own rights, full of small minded people, vengeful gossip, brutal class hatreds, and of course drug and alcohol problems up the wazoo.

I've never actually lived in a small town (except for a fishing village in Latvia, but that's a whole 'nother story), but I have taught in two of them.  Some of what these books portray seems real, and some seems overwrought.  I thought it would be interesting to compare the author's approaches and attitudes.

Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects is, unsurprisingly, the most brutal of the three.  All the Rage, by Courtney Summers, describes a town that is nearly as awful, but the protagonist doesn't seem all that driven to leave.  In contrast, much of the plot in I'll Meet You There, by Heather Demetrios, is about different types of attempts to leave their small town behind.

Poverty and a culture of haves vs. have-nots form the backdrop of all three novels.  I'll Meet You There is set in dry and dusty Creek View, California, and while nobody seems to be doing all that well there, Skylar, our protagonist, is scrambling to make ends meet, down to a few Saltines before finally taking on a second job.  Meanwhile, her recently unemployed mom is letting a creep of a guy move in, clearly as much for practical reasons as romantic.  Sky wants out so bad she can taste it, dreaming since middle school of going to art college in San Francisco.  She has the scholarships and loans all lined up, but her escape line is still fragile enough that her mom's financial problems could snap it.

In Sharp Objects, our protagonist, Camille, comes from the richest family in Wind Gap, Missouri.  This has done nothing to shield her against her town's pervasive mysogyny.  In fact, her mother's position as the heiress of the local hog factory fortune, ensures that nobody ever reaches out to help the three daughters she manipulates and torments in the guise of mothering them.  When 13 year old "Mil" starts self medicating with sex, drugs, and cutting, her friends and peers are only too happy to help her out.

Romy's family in Grebe, the setting of much of All the Rage, is just getting by.  The issue in Grebe, location unclear to me, is not so much money (although clearly the queen bees and jocks at her school have more cash than she does), but power.  Romy was raped by the sherrif's son, and even though she never pressed charges, the town has turned against her.  She is labeled a slut, and targeted for abuse and harrassment by everyone from her classmates to the police.

The town seems to thrive on judging other people with only partial information.  Her nearly-step dad lives off of disability, and takes heat because of it, since the pain he's been in for decades is not visible from the outside. When her black boyfriend visits, and she's desperate for him to leave so he doesn't find out how hated she is, someone else thinks this black guy is harrassing this white girl and runs him off.  Nice.

Absent dads and struggling moms are all the family these three girls have.  Sky's dad died in a drunk driving accident, spiraling her mom into depression and the family into even worse poverty than they'd known before.  Mil doesn't even know who her father was, and has called her stepfather by his first name since he joined the family when she was a toddler.  He's a cipher and a ghost, irrelevant to the story except in his appalling lack of interference in what goes on in the house he lives in.  Mil's mom is a piece of work, and I can't say too much more about that because of the twisty nature of that story.  Romy's mom is the happiest of the three, newly cohabitating with a sweet and loving man.  Sure, they can't marry since Romy's dad just took off without bothering to divorce her, but there is a living example of a healthy relationship in front of Romy.  I was frustrated by Romy's refusal to tell her mom what was going on in her life, but the other two protagonists were clearly on their own.

Over-the-top Mean Girls and Jackass Boys are the final thread connecting these charming villages.  An 8th grade Mil is passed around by four or five (the inexactness is chilling) high school boys at a party, and so deep in her self-loathing that she tries to frame it as sexual freedom rather than gang rape.  When she returns to town as an adult, reporting on two child murders, her own half-sister is now thirteen, and runs the most terrifying girl clique I've read about since Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye.  Romy is taunted and degraded over and over again, with not one single classmate suggesting that maybe you don't have to hate on a girl just because she decided she didn't want to have sex with her crush after all.  Again, she internalizes the shame, trying desperately to keep her burgeoning romance with a coworker at a diner out of town separate, because she doesn't think the girl she is in Grebe deserves anything but hatred and disgust.

Sky has a much saner experience.  She finds herself increasingly drawn to Josh, a co-worker who was kind of a jerk before he signed up and went to Afghanistan.  His experiences there changed him, and when he returns with a missing leg, he wavers between the good ol' boy behavior expected of him and a more mature way of being.  The town partiers, the ones who go to keggers and give blowjobs in pickup trucks, can be dumb, catty, and tacky, but they aren't evil, like their counterparts in Grebe and Wind Gap.  Also, Sky and her buddy Chris have held each other to their pact of getting out of town, but their third bestie, Dylan, finally calls them on the inherant snobbery of that.  She had a kid, is staying in town, and will make her life in the place they are so vocally eager to leave.  And she needs them to admit that it's okay--for her, and for others, even if not for them.

I am left wondering about the hatred with which these small towns are described.  If a big city features this strongly in a book, it is usually portrayed with love, even if the book itself is gritty.  Maybe the authors are trying to show that no place is truly safe.  Maybe they want to up the ante on high school drama by making the whole town in on it.  Maybe they want to play with the bucolic image of small town we see in commercials and romantic comedies.    I keep thinking of Winter's Bone, going beyond small town to backwoods tragedy and bleakness.  The human condition exists in all locales.  I don't believe that as many people are as darkly twisted as portrayed by Flynn, or that popular opinion is ever as united as portrayed by Summers (who at least allows other kinds of characters to exist, in Romy's home and workplace).  I do believe that people are dumb, or kind, or messed up, or warm-hearted, or vicious--or all of the above, given different circumstances.

I'll Meet You There, then, was my first five star read of 2016.  Sharp Objects was nasty, but I was expecting that, and was happy to give it four stars.  All the Rage dropped from four to three stars the more I thought about it.


  1. Really interesting post! I'm from England, so my knowledge of small-town America comes entirely from books—and it's been so skewed. I always think of them as these evil, backwards places—even though I *know* that's not right. I've read Sharp Objects, but really eager to read your other recommendations now!

  2. Well, my concept of English villages is straight out of a Miss Marple story. circa 1923, so that might be a little off as well!

  3. I wonder if the bleakness is just more transparent in a small town because everyone knows everyone? I look at the Sin City graphic novels, and the way cities were portrayed as centers of evil and anonymous violence just a few decades ago- I wonder if this is just one of those trends, making place a source of angst, no matter where it is?

    1. I'm always reminded of the old fable about the traveler who comes across an old man sitting on the hill above a town. The traveler asks the man what kind of town it is, and the old man says, "Well, what is it like where you came from?" The traveler tells him it was full of lies, violence, backstabbing, and ugliness of all types. The old man says, "The town down there is a lot like that."
      Later, another traveler comes along, asks about the town below, and is asked about where he comes from. "Oh, most people are kind there, there's a strong sense of community and looking out for each other." The old man says, "The town down there is a lot like that."
      The point being that a) all places have both good and bad and b) you see what you look for. Of course, artistically, different authors will focus on the bleak or the charming depending on what they're trying to accomplish. I just find that unrelenting depravity and evil is as unlikely as unending sweetness and light, so it makes me a bit suspicious of the author's world building when the skew it so hard in one direction.

  4. Your title on this post made me HAVE to click on it. LOVE it! I loved IMYT. Haven't read the other two, but I've had that happen too where, the longer I think about a book, my rating changes (sometimes up and sometimes down).

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

  5. Love the title, and I enjoyed the analysis. I liked how you compared and contrasted some very different novels.

    1. Thank you! I feel like there are so many reviews available on Goodreads, blogs, and other resources that it might be more interesting to do more posts like this, looking at a few books through a particular lens. Now I just need to think of others!


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