Picks and Pans Review: Small Places: in Search of a Vanishing America

updated 12/03/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/03/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Thomas H. Rawls

Describing himself as a "weed"—an "opportunistic outsider" who has moved from one place to another and taken root—Rawls traveled to small towns all over America to try to determine what "lies at the heart of each." Lynchburg, Tenn.; Mount Hope, an Amish village in Ohio; and Antelope, the Oregon hamlet where guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh founded a commune, were among the stops on his itinerary.

In these and 12 other burgs, Rawls, editor of Vermont's Harrowsmith Country Life magazine, where his "Small Places" column is a regular feature, investigates economies, histories and the locals. The result is a readable though rarely absorbing portrait of places you probably wouldn't know about unless you happened to live there.

Like Susan Orlean's Saturday Night, this book is loosely organized; it reads as if Rawls simply went to towns he'd heard of or wanted to know about. Some pieces are much stronger than others.

Writing on the Amish, for example, Rawls insinuated himself into the lives he was chronicling; he ate with a family and spent hours on their farm. But "The Romance of the Grape" is padded with technical details about wineries in upstate New York, maybe because the people interviewed answer questions about winemaking's romance with comments like "My job is mainly moving liquids around."

A collection like this depends on voices—both the subject's and the writer's. John McPhee is one master of this form; Rawls still seems an apprentice. He's at his best when the subject obviously touches him, as in the essay about two Washington Post reporters who chuck the city life to become dirt farmers: "As Sinclair speaks, I can feel myself resonating to his words—give up the computer keyboard and the printer's galleys and all those little words, facile words, hollow words, and take up the tractor's controls, the spading fork, the hoe, the package of seeds—small bundles of the life force.... No longer reporting the dirt, they are happily mucking about in it."

If Rawls had felt this kind of connection with the other lives he visited, he might have turned his splendid concept into an illuminating book about small-town America. (Little, Brown, $17.95)

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