Small-Town Novels Can Pay Big Literary Dividends

I’ve spent my whole life living in the city or medium-sized suburbs, so it’s an interesting change of pace for me to occasionally visit small towns — and to more-than-occasionally read novels set in small towns.

We’re all aware of the pros and cons of not-big burgs. Many residents know each other, there can be lots of friendliness, life is calmer, the streetscape and landscape are often pretty, etc. But small-town residents can know TOO much about each other, be mostly homogeneous in race and ethnicity, be narrow-minded in a number of cases, get very bored, etc. And then there’s the possibility of a family having three (or even four) generations in the same community — which can be good or bad.

Still, people who don’t live in a small town might find reading about one fascinating and almost exotic.

I’ve nearly finished a small-town-set novel: Empire Falls, the masterful Pulitzer Prize-winning gem by Richard Russo. Empire Falls, Maine, is going downhill economically, and 42-year-old protagonist Miles Roby isn’t doing so well, either. The diner he operates barely breaks even (at best), his wife Janine divorces him after falling in lust with an obnoxious guy who frequents the diner, Miles’ eccentric father is a total embarrassment, and the rich widow who basically owns the town basically owns Roby, too. Yet there are some wonderful human interactions (such as between Miles and his bright teen daughter Tick) and other positive elements of living in a small town.

That’s certainly the case in Jennifer Ryan’s heartwarming The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, in which many women join together to form a song group while local men are away fighting in World War II. But the novel, set in an English village, is not always sentimental as some devastating deaths occur and some not-nice characters act…not nicely.

Another World War II novel set in a small community is The Moon Is Down — an absorbing, lesser-known John Steinbeck work about a Nazi-occupied town (in Norway?) whose brave residents resist the Germans.

In Zora Neale Hurston’s classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, protagonist Janie Crawford’s unhappy second marriage places her in the small town of Eatonville, Fla. Her nasty/sexist husband becomes mayor there, and also runs a general store with a front porch that becomes Eatonville’s center of social life — but he doesn’t allow Janie to be there. Yes, a small town can be a place that perniciously forces women into “traditional” gender roles.

Things are more idealized in W.P. Kinsella’s Magic Time, which focuses on Mike Houle as he plays for a semipro baseball team in Grand Mound, Iowa. Everything in the tiny burg seems too good to be true — is it paradise, or a gilded cage?

Then there are various Sinclair Lewis novels — such as Main Street — set in small-town America. Those memorable Lewis books tend to satirize those communities for being conservative, resistant to change, and so on, yet some affection for the life there shines through.

Fannie Flagg, whose excellent novels are nearly always set in small towns, depicts those places in mostly positive ways — while not ignoring their downsides. One of her most moving and enjoyable books is A Redbird Christmas, in which the middle-aged Oswald Campbell is ill and miserable in snowy Chicago before finding health, happiness, and love after moving to a diminutive Alabama community.

Of course, many novels feature the opposite migration — from small town to big city as the protagonists search for money, diversity, excitement, a more creative life, and so on. One example is Denise Baudu’s move to Paris in Emile Zola’s compelling Au Bonheur des Dames.

Getting back to Alabama, one of literature’s most famous small-town novels is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The fictional Maycomb (said to be partly based on the real-life Monroeville) is not big, but it has all kinds of things going on — including neighborliness, racism, and kids being kids but also growing up too soon as they see life’s realities. And the characters range from ethical to eccentric to awful. Which proves the obvious point that no matter how small or large a place is, there are all kinds of recognizable people and emotions a novelist can depict.

What are your favorite novels set in small towns?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a greedy developer crowding my town and making it less diverse — is here.

65 thoughts on “Small-Town Novels Can Pay Big Literary Dividends

  1. I don’t think anyone has mentioned “And Ladies of the Club,” by Helen Hooven Santmyer, which I much enjoyed back in the 1980s or some such time. It was set in Xenia, Ohio. My own book, “Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans,” is not fiction, but is set in my hometown of Woodstock, Ill., which has grown from about 7,500 in the early 1950s to 25,500 today. I tell stories connected to the town, but those stories carry universal lessons and observations. Good subject, Dave.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Bill! As you know, I’ve read your “Woodstock” book — excellent! Sounds like your hometown has grown from a small town to a relatively medium-sized one. And, yes, there were definitely all kinds of universal elements in your book — as there are in many novels set in small towns.

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  2. Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel “Cranford” is such a one, ‘Cranford’ being the name of the little town whose inhabitants and visitors are the subject of her book. The sea-changes of modernity lap on the shore of this small place, in the form of a railroad, traveling foreigners and even a bit of international trade– and in ways small and large, the gentle implication is that the congenial and insular and peculiar society of the English small town will give way, and quickly, to the waves of larger forces, economic and social, that will wash over the nation at large.

    Ivan Bunin’s “The Village” is a painstakingly descriptive story of the lives of two brothers, but its overarching subject is village life, which in turn, stands in as a symbol of Russian life generally.

    from wikipedia:

    “The novel’s title had to do with an idea formulated by one of its characters, a local self-styled eccentric named Balashkin. According to the latter, Russia as a whole amounts to one huge Village and “the fate of its wild and poor peasantry is the fate of the country as such.” “My novel depicts the life of rural Russia; along with one particular village it is concerned with life of Russia as a whole”, Bunin told Odessky Listok newspaper in 1910.”

    Then there’s Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, whose formidable powers of detection and observation derive from and are strengthened by her own experience of village life in tiny St. Mary Meade, a sleepy sort of hotbed of intrigue and hypocrisy that mirrors in its small ways, all the complicated depravities of the urban, and even more often suburban, places she often visits , only to find herself surrounded by what she is used to. It’s like she never left!

    Gaskell, Bunin and Christie seem to have found in small places a metaphor to say big things about everywhere, which, I think, is the power and inspiration for much the employment of small towns and remote settings by authors of fiction.

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    • “Cranford” is a GREAT example of a small-town novel, jhNY! Thank you for recommending it to me a while back. Yes, kind of a quiet town, but one in which some change is a-coming.

      I also appreciate the mentions of Ivan Bunin’s novel and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries. Very true that small towns have enough people and enough goings-on to serve as microcosms of a lot of what happens (for better or worse) in places much larger.

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      • Faulkner and George Herriman have likewise made big things happen out of their small settings…though they each chose a county (Yoknapatawpha, Coconino) rather than a town in which to place their masterworks.

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        • True about Faulkner and “Krazy Kat” cartoonist Herriman. I’ve only read two Faulkner novels (“Light in August” and “As I Lay Dying”), but my sense is that he usually had small town or rural settings. I might be wrong…

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    • I’m perhaps just a little upset that you were able to come up with St. Mary Meade rather than I did. 🙂 I also watched “Cranford” instead of reading the book that was very good. I saw a mini-series based on it, which featured many excellent British actors.

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    • So, it seems to have worked. I’m not sure why this was important to me, other than this seems more appropriate than the Liberal moniker I was using when commenting on way more political columns. I’m still a liberal, but I love books way more than anything else, so this makes me feel better, and I think my fellow commenters here will recognize me.

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        • Thanks, Dave, and it was of course thought up by Bill who came up with it the other night when he couldn’t sleep. For someone who never studied English other than in secondary school, he went to the Wharton School at Penn/Villanova, in night school that Trump claims to have also gone to, but I can guarantee you that Bill is so much well-educated than Trump is, especially when it comes to words!

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            • I agree with you, as I’ve always thought about as mostly Wharton as a place to get a Masters Degree in for Business. That was like the Holy Grail, though I’m not sure how it was back then as today. “Stupidity and Evilness” fits perfectly!

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                • Yes, I don’t how anyone who never reads anything or talks with a 5th grade level can be accepted at any college unless they have connections!! Some people are still trying to stop Affirmative Action, though I think they should be more worried about “legacy” (if that still is the right word) admissions. I don’t begrudge anyone having the right to go to college or any post-graduate schools (as long as they have some basic knowledge to go through the rigors of a college or community degree). When I went to UT at Austen (ha!), it was an open secret that the football players had special quarters, as well as a cafeteria where they were fed steak every night — perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but I doubt it.

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                  • All great observations, Kat Lit. Yup, “legacy” admissions are often affirmative action for the well-connected white rich (who also get affirmative action in every other aspect of their lives — jobs and so on). I’m not sure Trump could have been legitimately accepted into a Pre-K program! And the way football players are coddled at some major universities is a scandal — one reason I despise college football (in addition to grossly overpaid coaches, etc.).

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                    • I went to one night football game at UT and after winning it, the crowd went nuts and scared me to the point I never went back again. Btw, we’ve been having the most gorgeous sunrises here lately: blue, gray, pink, purple, yellow and white. Of course they don’t last for long, so this is one of the reasons I get up so early.

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                    • Excellent point, Kat Lit — football crowds can be kind of scary. As can crowds for various other sports. Some people just get too “into” the action, and feel free to act in ways they wouldn’t act when not in a stadium.

                      I’ve seen great sunrises lately, too. Must be a good time of the year for that!

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      • And here I was assuming you were named something like Katherine Elizabeth, who went by the nickname “Libbie” and shortened all for you online persona name. I like the real story better! (And I like your new one!)

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      • Also, as your new name is Kat Lit, perhaps now is the time to acquaint yourself with “The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr”, by ETA Hoffmann. It’s an autobiography by a feline auto-didact that got mixed up with another one at the printer’s, to great and occasionally bewildering effect. His opinions on the trustworthiness of dogs is heartfelt, though not necessarily objective.

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  3. I completely agree that small towns are a character in themselves in literature. It also sets the stage for an uptick in drama, since everyone knows everyone and nothing stays secret for long! It sounds like I will have to check the library for “The Moon is Down,” I love Steinbeck but have not read this yet (and I always love it when Chilbury Ladies Choir is mentioned). Another WWII small-town novel you might enjoy is “the Baker’s Secret” by Stephen Kiernan. It’s about a small French village near the coast of Normandy, and how the main character (a baker) forms a very intricate network to keep her town going during the Nazi occupation and subsequent invasion.

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    • Thank you, M.B.! Nice way of putting it — a small town can be sort of a character in itself. And, yes, it’s hard to keep a secret in a small town.

      Given your wide knowledge of, and wide reading in, World War II, I think you’ll find “The Moon Is Down” interesting. Not a typical Steinbeck novel, but very absorbing.

      And thank you for the recommendation of “The Baker’s Secret”! Sounds VERY well worth reading.

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  4. Fannie Flagg is a wonderful writer. I am dating myself, but I remember when she was on the game show Match Game back in the 1970;s when Gene Rayburn was hosting. I did not know they were all lit at the time but I was a kid!

    Her book “Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe” is a wonderful small town book. The film is very good, too.

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    • Thank you, Michele! I also remember Fannie Flagg from her TV days, and agree that she’s a wonderful novelist. I think “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” is her best book, but she’s written a number of other excellent ones. A multi-talented person.

      I’ve never seen the highly regarded “Fried Green Tomatoes” movie. 😦

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    • Michele, my best friend at the time watched “Fried Green Tomatoes” and once she finished it (on DVD), she immediately watched it again. I loved it too, but not quite as much as she did. 🙂

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  5. Let’s not forget about Lake Wobegon, “the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve.”

    One of the best comments ever spoken about diversity was by my sister’s father-in-law, a brilliant man who came from a town in Iran, whose name translates into “a dusty little place”.

    He said, “there is an inherent contradiction in what we value as diversity because to create cultural uniqueness requires isolation. The pervasiveness of the media, the globalization of trade, modernization – all serve to flatten cultural differences. We may see these things as good, and I am not saying they are not good, but when aboriginal people in Brazil prefer Pepsi to Coke and spend their days thumbing Facebook, we have lost something.”

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    • Ah, the fictional town Garrison Keillor made famous!

      There is wisdom in what your sister’s father-in-law eloquently said. But, as you know, diversity also can obviously bring about good things — in addition to negatives such as more people unfortunately drinking sugary carbonated beverages.

      Thank you, Almost Iowa!

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  6. Dave, another mention by me of Liane Moriarty, whose novel “The Last Anniversary” is set on a small island (Scribbly Gum) off the coast near Sydney. It’s not one of her best novels, but it’s still really very good. Another book I really loved was “Dandelion Wine,” by Ray Bradbury, which means it’s more of a compilation of short stories rather than a novel, set in Green Tree, Illinois. I’ve been meaning to reread this for years, but my shelves are overloaded as it is. Another book that is languishing on my shelves somewhere is “Empire Falls.” so I need to move this one up a few levels on my to be read list, assuming I can find it.

    I think Sue was mentioning “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society,” another novel set on an island, which is being occupied by the Germans during WWII. I loved it. She also mentioned reading “Cold Comfort Farm,” which I haven’t read, but did see the movie, and again, I loved it too. Last mention for now is “Cold Sassy Tree” set in the early 1900’s in a small town in Georgia. This was written by Olive Ann Burns, and my sister gave me the book for Christmas it seems like eons ago, and it took me that long to finally read it and I’m so glad I did. Another book was “Leaving Cold Sassy” but Burns died before the book was published and I just couldn’t.

    Well, the last time I looked, it was 33 degrees in Mt. Pocono, so I guess we’re entering the “cold” season up here! 🙂

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    • Thank you, Kat Lib! I appreciate the mention of the wonderful Liane Moriarty — she has indeed used small towns as a setting. And I can’t believe I forgot Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine” — a very nice, quintessential small-town novel (with no sci-fic elements).

      I definitely have “Cold Sassy Tree” and “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society” on my list!

      Yes, it IS getting cold in the Northeast. It’s in the high 30s here in northern New Jersey, but I still have a couple of windows open so my cat can watch “cat TV.” 🙂

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      • Does Misty have a favorite TV show or do you have a cat video that you can play for him? None of my critters are excited at all by anything on TV. My kitty just ignores it completely, while my dogs are only interested when there’s a commercial that comes on and they go crazy barking at it if there is a dog in it (which there are a lot of)!

        I was looking at the Barnes & Noble website this morning (big mistake!), because I found out that there is a new Liane Moriarty novel coming out on Nov. 6 called “Nine Perfect Strangers.” There’s also a children’s book coming out the same day by the writers for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert with all proceeds going to various disaster relief funds for the Carolinas following Hurricane Florence. It’s called “Whose Boat is This Boat,” (Comments That are not Helpful in the Aftermath of a Hurricane). This is a dig at Trump, of course, who seemed more concerned about this yacht that plowed into a dock (I think) rather than the people who were affected by the storm.

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        • Funny — your dogs’ reaction to commercials!!!

          Misty doesn’t watch any TV or videos. His “TV” is looking out the window and watching trees, birds, squirrels, etc. — all of which he also gets to see firsthand during his daily leashed walk. 🙂

          Wonderful that the very prolific Liane Moriarty has another novel coming out! I’m sure it will be anywhere from great to GREAT!

          The evil Trump has brought self-centeredness to unimagined heights. 😦

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    • Thanks, Kat Lit, that’s exactly the book that I was referring to. Somehow, despite absolutely loving book, I can never remember what it’s called.

      I’m almost finished “Cold Comfort Farm” and must admit, I haven’t loved it. I understand that Flora is supposed to be kind of quirky, but I think the quirk is at the expense of an interesting plot, and likeable characters. Sadly, I’m also finding “A Connecticut Yankee…” also a bit caught up in its own cleverness without being very entertaining.

      Re Moriarty’s “Nine Perfect Strangers” I’m pretty sure one my book club ladies recently read it. Would love to know what you think when you get to it 🙂

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      • Thanks, Sue, and I’ll definitely let you know what I think. As far as “Cold Comfort Farm” goes, I probably liked it so much because Kate Beckinsale played Flora. Kate also starred as Emma in that A&E production of “Emma,” which was so much better than any other movies or whatnot of the Austen novel.

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  7. Another great topic! Having grown up in the rural south myself, I immediately thought of a couple of small-town-in-the-south novels that I enjoyed. Bette Green’s “Summer of My German Soldier,” about a Jewish girl in small-town Arkansas who befriends a German POW, was one of my favorite books when I was about the same age as the protagonist (12 or so). And then “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” is set in small-town Louisiana.

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  8. Oh, how I love Empire Falls! I’m so glad you are enjoying it and used it as a basis for today’s column, Dave. Richard Russo writes other books that capture small town life in upstate New York – Nobody’s Fool, Mohawk, and The Risk Pool. Be careful. once Russo has hooked you, you might need to read everything he has written. While not qualifying as literary genius like Russo, I have enjoyed Jan Caron’s books about the small town of Mitford. Set in the south, it has all the characteristics you describe – people who care about each other, yet meddle and know too much.

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    • Thank you, Molly! “Empire Falls” is absolutely enthralling, and I can’t wait to see how it ends. (I have about 50 pages to go in my 483-page edition.) I liked the one other Richard Russo novel I’ve read — “Straight Man” — but “Empire Falls” tops it by a lot. The characters are so well drawn, the writing is just about perfect, and I almost feel like I know every street in the town. I will definitely read more of Russo — perhaps “Nobody’s Fool” next.

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      • Molly, I just finished “Empire Falls.” Wow — Russo really upped the ante with some dramatic events toward the end of the novel. But those events didn’t seem cheap — they were all foreshadowed in a way.

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  9. Dave, am posting this from my phone (still no internet at the new house 😦 ) so I won’t say too much, but off the top of my head, “The Casual Vacancy”, “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” and “The Guernsey Literary…” book that has too many words for me to remember. I’m also currently reading “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” which feels like a small town due to the lack of transport and technology, and “Cold Comfort Farm” which is absolutely about people being all up in other people’s business. Sue xx

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    • Oh, and I meant to say, Stephen King sets a lot of his books in Maine and often creates that intimate, small town feel. I’m glad to see it’s also worked for Richard Russo

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      • Thank you, Sue! I hope you get Internet soon, and that the rest of your post-move goes well.

        Great mentions! Stephen King definitely sets many of his novels in small towns. If I’m remembering correctly, “Rose Madder” is one of the few books of his I’ve read which spends a significant amount of time in a fairly large city.

        J.K. Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy” deals SO well with small-town relationships and politics.

        Thanks again for recommending “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.” What a memorable novel — as is “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”

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    • Thank you, whatcathyreadnext! “Olive Kitteridge” is indeed a small-town novel. And a memorable one, with Olive’s interesting/abrasive personality and the interrelated-short-story nature of the book. Great that you mentioned it!

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  10. As soon as I began reading, I knew you must mention Fannie Flagg’s wonderful books! Even her book “I Still Dream About You” that takes place in Birmingham, Alabama where she grew up has that wonderful hometown feel!

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    • Thank you, lulabelle!

      You’re right — there’s still a great hometown feel even when Fannie Flagg occasionally has an urban setting such as Birmingham or Chicago. (I think “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe,” like the beginning of “A Redbird Christmas,” had scenes in The Windy City.)

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        • You are so welcome, Dave! I think I have told you that her best friend worked with my sister in Birmingham and another great friend lived in the downstairs apartment below her in Southside. They were all involved in the local “Town and Gown” theatre in Birmingham. When Fannie autographed my copy of “I Still Dream About You” she and I talked about that. She was a gracious lady!

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          • I remember that! Nice that you have a Fannie Flagg connection — and an autographed copy of her excellent novel “I Still Dream About You”! Also, it’s heartening when an author or other famous person whose work we admire turns out to be a gracious person.

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    • Thank you, Becky!

      I guess Fannie Flagg’s acting experience helped when it came to reading that poignant book. (I think Ms. Flagg is a top-notch/underrated novelist. Her books can be on the sentimental side, but rarely get TOO sentimental.)

      And thanks for the mention of Adrianna Trigiani, who I’ve never read. I just put her on my list!

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  11. You are right when you said, small town settings provide a sort of exoticness, which is missing in bigger cities. Beneath the facade of peace and calm lurks some extraordinary stories. I’ve just read one, Harper lee’s To Kill A Mocking Bird, I would love to read the chilbury’s ladies choir…an interesting read it should be!

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