Welcome to Utopia (Notes from a Small Town)
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Entertainment Weekly staffer Karen Valby visited Utopia (population 241) in 2006 for an article about American backwaters relatively untouched by popular culture. Intrigued, she returned to research her first book, Welcome to Utopia (Notes from a Small Town), a deftly executed look at the stereotype of a one-horse town and its residents’ modest aspirations and wearisome realities. Over a two-year span this ranching community west of San Antonio played host to the New York–based Valby, who crashed the Utopia General Store’s all-male coffee klatch and braved late-night heart-to-hearts with teens torn between staying or leaving after their twelve-person class graduates. There are brutal moments, like the funeral procession for 23-year-old Jeff Wiekamp, killed in Afghanistan, which serves to remind that current events can’t be checked at the tiny burg’s borders. Valby eschews a wide lens, zooming in on individuals and trusting that their words and actions will render the larger picture, an approach that produces entertaining anecdotes in lieu of insight. Her nonconclusion is mirrored in the salutatorian address of Kelli Rhodes, the Utopia public school’s only black student: “It was good. It was bad. I accept the town for what it is.” Spiegel & Grau, $25