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 The latest weekly piece — about a greedy developer crowding my town and making it less diverse — is here.