Welcome to Utopia
Notes from a Small Town
By Karen Valby
(Spiegel & Grau, Hardcover, 9780385522861, 256pp.)
Publication Date: June 1, 2010
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Utopia, Texas: It’s either the best place on earth, or it’s no place at all.
In the twenty-first century, it’s difficult to imagine any element of American life that remains untouched by popular culture, let alone an entire community existing outside the empire of pop. But Karen Valby discovered the tiny town of Utopia tucked away in the Texas Hill Country. There are no movie theaters for sixty miles in any direction, no book or music stores. But cable television and the Internet have recently thrown wide the doors of Utopia.
Valby follows the lives of four Utopians—Ralph, the retired owner of the general store; Kathy, the waitress who waits in terror for three of her boys to return from war; Colter, the son of a cowboy with the soul of a hipster; and Kelli, an aspiring rock star and one of the only black people in town—as they reckon, on an intensely human scale, with war and race, class and culture, and the way time’s passage can change the ground beneath our feet.
Utopia is the kind of place we still think of as the “real America,” a place of cowboys and farmers and high-school sweethearts who stay together till they die. But its dramatic stories show us what happens when the old tensions of small-town life confront a new reality: that no town, no matter how small and isolated, can escape the liberating and disruptive forces of the larger world.
Welcome to Utopia is a moving elegy for a proud American way of life and a celebration of our relentless impulse toward rebirth.
Karen Valby is a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly. She lives in Austin, Texas. This is her first book.
Susan Stamberg gathers recommendations from booksellers Rona Brinlee, Lucia Silva and Daniel Goldin. Their selections for summertime reading include books about small-town America, a polygamist father in over his head, and a postmistress in New England during World War II. More at NPR.org
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Praise for Karen Valby’s WELCOME TO UTOPIA
"There's nothing "small" about Karen Valby's majestic and life-affirming look at a small town. With a documentarian's eye and a poet's soul, she unveils the complete and compelling history of not just a dot on a map, but of the human heart and soul. Welcome to Utopia is a first book like To Kill a Mockingbird was a first book. It is, in the most modest phrasing I can think of, a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction."—Augusten Burroughs
"Slowly, as talented journalists do, Valby won some trust. Her reporting is deep, the tone intimate. Readers are quite likely to absorb the rural Texas pulse from the pages."
–Cleveland Plain Dealer
"There are moments of joy and tragedy, contentment and discomfort. Through personal moments, the book quietly deconstructs much mythology about the Small Town by focusing on this one small town, which has somewhat reluctantly engaged in the uneasy push and pull that comes with change — change being the chosen word because not everyone in Utopia would call it progress."
"As this affectionate memoir shows, small-town folks are much like Americans everywhere."
"Valby digs deep into the heartland, reporting tragedy....and documenting the ingrained racism and ignorance with the same clear-eyed sensitivity and passion that she calls on to illustrate the deep family bonds and lifelong friendships she encounters — the way small-town people take care of each other."
–San Antonio Express News
“… a rich portrait of a community, bound by tradition and grief, sickness and success, and most of all, a commitment to one another….[Valby], in turn, has repaid them in kind, as her literary portrait of them sits comfortably on the bookshelf next to other classic works about the culture of small-town America, including Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, and Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show. Of course, those works were fiction. This, as the denizens of Utopia would no doubt tell you, is something altogether more powerful and important: real life.” --Dallas Morning News
“Valby’s rich portrait of several local residents is incredibly appealing for its honest look at the struggles of modern families in small-town America.” –BookPage
“A deftly executed look at the stereotype of a one-horse town and its residents’ modest aspirations and wearisome realities…Valby eschews a wide lens, zooming in on individuals and trusting that their words and actions will render the larger picture.” –Texas Monthly
"The characters, the town, and the landscape in Welcome to Utopia are so perfectly drawn, they seem as near to me as my own neighbors. Karen Valby is a writer of astonishing talent, and she has given us the record of a rich and vanishing world in this book."—Haven Kimmel, author of A Girl Named Zippy
“Entertainment Weekly senior writer Valby…emerges as a sensitive, candid and balanced observer of life in a town that is both everywhere and nowhere. …A compassionate, often wrenching reminder that life is surpassingly hard, even in Utopia.”—Kirkus