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Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009 01:34 am

A small town seen through Springfield eyes

A Springfield native, from a long line of Springfield natives, Sarah Hathaway Thomas takes a spate of years away from her hometown when she marries an educational materials promoter/farmer living on the edge of a northern Indiana town, population 200. She becomes not only Carsten’s wife but also his business partner in both enterprises. While the marketing of school supplies is within her area of understanding, the move to this forlorn town — the elementary school is still a pile of rubble, not having been cleared since consolidation — the life she encounters amounts to culture shock. She’s not prepared for the poverty, the dirt, the tunnel vision, the attitudes, the eccentricities (if that’s the word) of so many of the meager populace. The heart of this book is an accounting of this populace.

We do get details of the inadequate farmhouse Sarah moves into, and how she and her husband remodel it, bit by bit. We hear the mishaps and trials such activity entails. We find we like Carsten as a sort of gardener: he can raise gigantic squash and little else; and a sort-of landlord: he has too much compassion to demand regular rent from the impoverished tenants in the apartment house he owns on the edge of his land. Most of these depart in the middle of the night when their debt grows too high, or some opportunity beckons. We are treated to a camcorder tour of the village by the “Preston Travel and Tourism Commission” — visiting relatives — where the most dilapidated house in town is dubbed “Bed and Breakfast” and the single store doing triple duty as grocery, filling station and video becomes “The Preston Mall.” The local savings and loan is so named because the owner of the house has erected a 5x6 sign in his front yard saying, “Hey, Walter (Cowboy) Jones, Where’s my $325?” The tour does pass some lovely spots, but ends with a large metal building with a perpetual “Garage Sale” sign which houses, among other things, the full trailer of the owner (not for sale) and within that trailer, a full, working, theater organ from silent movie days (also not for sale), the pipes of which are arrayed outside the trailer. A reader wishes for a CD of this tour to go along with the book!

Sarah Thomas has a keen eye for detail and a sure ear for the quotable phrase. Though there are stories of friends — the local minister — what keeps coming through is the poverty of the people and of the town, in more than physical dimensions. Thomas spends much time on tutoring certain children, for instance. The many stories — each interesting in itself, from whole chapters to vignettes — add up to something that makes amusing reading, but with a sense of unease. The book is worth reading, from one of Springfield’s own, for its view of a completely different way of life, not so very far from here, perhaps even in a small town nearby. And I would add, I recognize our own town, which is considerably larger, but is also in many aspects this same small town America.

Contact Jacquelyn Jackson at jjack1@uis.edu.

West of Buffalo: Life in a Small Indiana Town, by Sarah Hathaway Thomas. RoseDog Books 2009, 130 pp.
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