As a small-town girl, I love depictions of rural living when they've got a little style and sass in their makeup. Replete with enough quirks and quaintness to choke a mule, small towns are timelessly fertile ground for writers. But the best authors ignore — or even play with — stereotypes to tell truly compelling stories.
Cold Comfort Farm
Stella Gibbons has plenty of sass. She was writing in the 1930s, when the "local color" movement glossed all things rural with sentiment, and farms were described without even a whiff of manure. Her comic novel Cold Comfort Farm stuck a pin in the balloon of idyllic country living. Featuring the Starkadder family, the cast includes oversexed farmhands Seth and Reuben, crazy Great Aunt Ada in the attic, and their sensible city-dweller cousin Flora Poste, who is capable of "every art and grace save that of earning her own living." In one of the loveliest meta-storytelling devices ever, Gibbons marks her best passages with one or two asterisks, for the reader's enhanced enjoyment. This book makes me laugh out loud every time I read it, which is at least once a year.
Fewer laughs and more tears come from Rosina Lippi's Homestead. A series of linked stories, it chronicles six generations of women in an Austrian mountain village, starting about 1909. Her characters are drawn with casual grace, and her understated writing is insightful and beautiful. In one tale she describes the interaction between a man and a woman negotiating sexual politics, as "Francesco had feared to ask too much of her, and saw, too late, that he had asked too little." Quiet stories, and gentle ones, they depict the inner longings and outer strength of mountain women everywhere.
Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There
Through the influence of the charismatic pastoral couple Andre and Magda Trocme, the isolated village of Le Chambon became a "city of refuge" for Jewish people in Vichy France. Philip Hallie tells the story in academic language peppered with anecdotes and first-person interviews. Any small town has rivalries and factions, and these played into simultaneously creating sanctuary while dooming some rescuers. Le Chambon is part of that era's larger story: the daily interactions of one small town set against the backdrop of hell come to earth.
These three writers reached into the enclaves of mountain villages, subsistence farms and human hearts — and gave us funny, sweet, sorrowful insights into small-town lives lived large.
Wendy Welch is the author of The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap.
Three Books... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rosie Friedman with production assistance from Annalisa Quinn.