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Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008 04:26 am

Not necessarily Anytown, Ill.

Homerville’s stories are unique, but the themes are universal

Untitled Document So where’s Homerville? In Pike County, west of Jacksonville, north of Pittsfield, and close enough to the Illinois River that one character jumps in it to commit suicide (only to reappear 20 years later). Its population is small — a place you overlook if you ever leave our concrete arteries and take to the country roads that crisscross our area, and it’s been overlooked in these pages for too long. It’s like many another small, rural central-Illinois town, or the rural Wisconsin area I come from. It has its bandstand in the middle of Main Street; its all-purpose store selling groceries, feed, and sundries; its switchboard office with an operator where everyone listens in on everyone else and is expected to; its town drunk; its restaurant; and its mortuary, where Homerville’s undertaker embalmed and buried his own amputated leg (which awaited the rest of him with an appropriate tombstone) and had trouble changing clothes on uncooperative corpses. The stories often take place in the ’30s, but they frequently bring us up to the present, the past trailing behind like the neighbors’ trash-can shirts and underwear a local sculptress filches for her creations. The nameless narrator is a boy growing up in the town. The stories are unique, but their themes are universal. We become familiar with people and places. A character who’s only mentioned in one story is often central to another — a grand right and left that links the book, a spotlight playing across a stage. Each chapter stands alone, but all are enriched by this layering. I actually read from back to front and at each new story thought, “Aha! I’ve met that person!” and scrunched down to enjoy myself. Many of the tales are bizarre but could have happened; the author asserts that each has its roots in fact. This I believe, for my own are of this sort. (Why write of dull folk? Actually, is anyone dull when you plumb their innards, even if much of this generation is tending that way, plugged into the same music, the same generic stuff on the tube, and possessing a vocabulary of 30 words? That’s a different soapbox). Bradbury does admit to a little embroidery of stems and leaves, but what colorful threads! Some may prefer the first story, the meanness of the town’s richest man, who starves his horses and is finally murdered over a sewing machine, but my favorite is “The Piano Teacher.” Marietta is the youngest of a wholesome vaudeville family when — with no competitive radio or TV — vaudeville is at its height. The LeTeurs never get top billing but are always in a comfortable-enough spot on the program to scrape a living — but have managed no savings. When the father has a stroke the children are scattered, and Marietta takes on the care of her incapacitated father and her mother, who must nurse him. She secretly becomes a stripper in a Chicago burlesque house with an act that would make it big even today (read it!), works three shows every day, saves her earnings, and, when she has enough, returns to Homerville to tend her parents and tell her father how she accompanied the Chicago Symphony Chorale.
I haven’t begun to tell how earthily Bradbury, a born raconteur, turns a phrase. Find out for yourself.
Jacqueline Jackson, books and poetry editor of Illinois Times, is a professor emerita of English at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
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