Sinclair Lewis, starting his famous novel “Main Street,” set in Minnesota, wrote sarcastically of the small town: “Our railway station is the final aspiration of architecture.” A Texas small town was excoriated in a magazine editor’s 2010 book. But appreciation of the small town is also common. In Nebraska, Timothy Schaffert’s new novel “The Coffins of Little Hope” spotlights members of extended families.
The town in Texas was criticized by the Entertainment Weekly editor for the narrow-mindedness she saw. Nebraska small towns, it seems, are mostly enjoyed. Roger Welsch’s beloved Dannebrog is a nonfiction example. Schaffert’s novel elaborates on positive and negative events of its small town.
Schaffert’s complex view of the small town is also shown by his novel “Devils in the Sugar Shop,” in which Omaha is called small-townish, and a character feels Omahans stay inside physically and metaphorically while in contrast New Yorkers conduct their lives publicly on street corners.
Schaffert, who teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, founded the Omaha Lit Fest and has written four novels set in Nebraska. Three of them have richly detailed small-town scenes.
“The Coffins of Little Hope,” a Nebraska novel, got great reviews in both the high-brow New York Times and in People magazine. Why? For one reason, it both affirms small-town culture and entertains with zany events that might happen in small towns and big cities.
The protagonist, an 83-year-old obituary writer — her father ran the newspaper and her grandson runs it now — tells of a lonely woman befriended by an itinerant, macho aerial photographer. The woman claims her daughter disappeared the same day as the man did.
The small town survives the texting and emailing that proliferates through the novel, while it profits from outsiders thronging to the missing-child story, and the octagenarian, Essie, though wondering how she’ll hold up through the chaos and attacked by stray dogs, learns more and more about the daughter who cannot be proven to have existed.
Essie, resembling the TV character of the independent female detective, seems to have within her many of the charms of her eccentric neighbors. Far from narrow-minded, she ends up quite healthy and recovered.
Such a character contradicts such statements as this one from Entertainment Weekly’s Karen Valby writing about Utopia, Texas, in her 2010 book “Welcome to Utopia: Notes from a Small Town”: “There is perhaps no comfort zone deeper and narrower than that of an old-timer in a small town.” (A more complimentary view of the small town of Utopia, Texas, is also shown by the current movie about a golfer, Seven Days in Utopia, based on the book Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia by David L. Cook).