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)
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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