Sunday, January 1, 2012

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis' satirical novel is set in the fictional Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. The novel is very descriptive, and although coastal dwellers may find the descriptions of a small midwestern town amusing, I found it a little creepy to read a nearly exact description of the hamlet in North Dakota in which I spent much of my childhood. Lewis isn't lying. For better or for worse, this is small-town America. Now, as Lewis was writing satirically, he accurately skewered most of the negative aspects of living in a small town. I'm sure other writers have written on the positive aspects of small town culture, and for the sake of balance I should probably read one...but I won't do it anytime soon. I'm still enjoying shaking my head at Gopher Prairie.

The main character, Carol Kennicott, moves to Gopher Prairie, her husband's hometown, after her marriage. She struggles for years as a person whom the townspeople perceive as an outsider, although she wants to be considered an insider. I too moved to a small town and was mystified at the insistence many people had upon labeling me a newcomer. Even after two years of attending the small school, I was referred to as "the new girl". After two years of being the new girl, the prospects of ever being considered an insider were bleak. I can sympathize with Carol. Unlike Carol, however, I turned 18 and left. If I had been born into the place, had been accepted as one of the community from birth, I may have been happy to come back after college and make a life in that small town. In that way, I can understand the residents of Gopher Prairie and the residents of my own small town, and their enjoyment of their community. Unfortunately, their protective instincts toward their community are a double-edged sword, as they use those instincts to excuse their reticence to accept people who genuinely want to belong.

Oh, and last week I went to Minneapolis. I'll admit that I imagined the residents of Gopher Prairie, admiring the sleek Euro designs as they wandered through Ikea, or buying trendy clothes at the Mall of America just to impress their friends back home. And then I went back to my house, in a town that is not tiny, where people do not tell me that I don't belong.

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