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Welcome to Utopia: Notes from a Small Town Hardcover – June 1, 2010

3.9 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Journalist Valby was given a challenging assignment: find a town in the U.S. so small or so remote that it was somehow off the radar of pop culture. Remarkably, she found one: Utopia, Texas, with a population of about 1,000. The town has no mayor, no stoplights, no fast-food restaurants, no chain stores, and no movie theater. (There are seven churches, though.) But even Utopia could not remain untouched for long: as Valby was writing her article, satellite TV and broadband were making their way to Utopia, opening the town up to the larger world outside its narrow borders. Valby finished her magazine article, but then, wanting to “get past the mythology of the small town,” she went back to Utopia, spending two years there getting to know its people, its rhythms, its past, and its future. The book is a portrait of a small town in transition, a town that is growing globally and perhaps even philosophically, if not physically. A revealing account, bittersweet in the way Margaret Mead's work was. --David Pitt

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau; 1St Edition edition (June 1, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 038552286X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385522861
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 0.9 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,859,743 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Travis Sutherland on June 17, 2010
Format: Hardcover
As a descendant of multiple generations of Utopians, and I enthusiastically approve of this book. I eagerly waited for over a year to see what Karen took from my hometown, and was not dissapointed after reading it in three days.
It would have been easy for an outside observer to produce an superficial overview of a tiny hick town, full of racism and ignorance, stubbornly stuck in the past.
However, Karen wasn't content with being a detached observer, instead choosing to embed and immerse herself into the town, taking genuine interest in its residents. She took notice of the details of the history, settings and customs that make Utopia special.
What she produced was an honest, affectionate, surprisingly thorough account of a community at a crossroads. I find the timing of her arrival interesting, as she did find the town in an unprecedented state of transition. She did a great job of portraying the proud traditions, the generations clinging to them and the angst and yearing of the younger generation.
While one reviewer stated that her conclusions were neither surprising nor original, I don't believe that she was necessarily intending them to be. She merely wanted to depict a community and lifestyle that is more foreign to most city folks than she was to the old timer coffee drinkers. And so she did.
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Format: Hardcover
I was surprised to see the Publisher's Weekly negative review of this book that spoke to me so movingly that I could not put it down. Maybe you have to be able to recognize this small Texas town in your heart and soul in order to connect strongly to the book, but whatever the reason, I was frequently moved to tears by it. In my imagination I was there with the author, interacting with the "coffee drinkers", and I could hear them speak, hear their accents and see the lines on their faces and the dust on their boots. My own father could easily have been the model for Ralph or any of the other older men who provide so much of Valby's introduction to small-town Texas. I saw my mother, my aunts and uncles, and my cousins in the pages of this book as well. For a non-Texan, Valby did an amazing job of painting a picture that a native Texan could relate to.
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Format: Hardcover
Author Karen Valby transports the reader through the ups and downs of one particular small town in America...Utopia, Texas.
Valby follows the lives of four notable individuals together with their close-knit circle of family and friends.

We nurse coffee every morning with disgruntled old men who abhor change, listen to the dreams and aspirations of young folks who can not wait to put Utopia in their rear view mirror, others who are hesitant of a culture change and just want to linger in their home town as did their parents and grandparents, then there are some who are totally fuddled and not sure what to do.

In a way we all live in a small town...that being ourselves.
Giving each other support, fighting our own demons, tentative of change, how we mesh with one another, it's all here.

Well conceived and written.
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Format: Hardcover
Karen Valby has placed herself in the middle of nowhere to find out where we as Americans are at. Working from an assignment at her day job at Entertainment Weekly, Ms. Valby chooses to try and pierce the mysteries of the small town of Utopia, Texas, for an article, and finds the issues and the people so compelling that she expands the article in to a book, moving for a time to the small town to study it residents, their history, and the town itself.

Many Americans have sprung from these small towns, and many of them will recognize the usual cast of characters here. What makes Ms. Valby's book to compelling is that she manages to look at the town and its people as part of a larger picture, and manages to place Utopia in modern America, even if the town itself does not. Like many of the small places, the military looms large, annually harvesting its young men and sending them off to war. When the town endures deaths from far away and unknown places, the town itself becomes the main support for the family of the fallen. Of course, that is really the enduring strength of these places, and we get to see how the reaction of the town ultimately makes if possible for the families to recover, and for Utopia to keep encouraging its young men and women to fight in far away places.

Ms. Valby originally looked for a town that had no culture, by perusing the subscriber list from "Entertainment Weekly" to see where they did not have a reader. Although I am sure that Time Warner feels they have covered the country with their magazines, Utopia was selected. Ms. Valby ultimately comes to understand that Utopia, although not on the radar of New York based magazines, is ultimately tied to America in a different way.
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Format: Hardcover
Sometimes a piece of literature comes along to give us new insight into familiar territory.

If you're from small-town America, this non-fiction book will take you home to those coffee-fueled mornings of gossip in the café, the town festivals where everyone "gets a little crazy," and the dramatic arc of the high school experience where teenagers rub up against the horizons of their futures. But no matter your background, you'll get a glimpse into the still-powerful heart of "one stop light" America.

I devoured this book in my spare time over three days and I'll carry some of its characters in my memory for the rest of my days. When I step back to get the whole picture, I'm amazed. This sensitive, talented writer managed to embed herself in the heart and soul of a small Texas town called Utopia. In the process, she was so charming and respectful that many people took her into their confidence. With raw material like that to use, she has produced a polished diamond.

SPOILER-- some parts of this book will give you chills and may make you head for the coffee pot or stronger liquid refreshment. For instance, I have read the heart-rending part about Kathy learning the news about her solider son's death several times. The five-paragraph salutatorian speech that Kelli, the lone black girl in the high school, delivered is a spare, tightly-crafted gem that should be an example of "how to do it" on the essay portion of the SAT. It gave me goosebumps. (I defy you to read the next to last paragraph and not have the same reaction.) Then there is the romance of Colter and Jamie--two of the most lovable young souls you'll ever come across. Not to mention Morris, Ralph and the other gentlemen who gather at the General Store each morning.

The next time I'm driving through a tiny town, I'll be thinking about some of the people I "met" in Utopia and wonder how they're doing.

Many thanks to Karen Valby for introducing me to them.
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