2009 Sigma Tau Delta Common Reader
By Peter Scholl, Luther College, IA
The full title of this year’s Sigma Tau Delta “common reader” is Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time (HarperCollins 2002, Perennial 2003) and its author is Michael Perry.
In Population 485, Perry writes about his life in a small Wisconsin town near the farm where he grew up—then he moved away and earned a degree in nursing, became an emergency medical technician (EMT), worked in cities at a range of jobs, and, after a dozen or so years, returned to his roots. Somewhere along that path he started writing.
From his window in downtown New Auburn, Wisconsin—which is near the farm where he started—Perry could survey most of the comings and goings. But since typing in a room most of the day doesn’t always help you meet your neighbors, he signed up for the local volunteer fire department. As a registered nurse and an EMT, he had many of the relevant skills already. And that choice gave him much to write about, introduced him to a cross-section of folks, and offered such perks as having to sell tickets for annual fire department fundraisers.
Though he was never an English major, he has the distinction of being the first EMT in his town to answer his pager from poetry readings, rushing off from literature to conflagrations and carnage on country roads. In fact, his stories about life in New Auburn, Wisconsin, often alternate between humorous or sweet or pastoral scenes with unforgettable locals—to sudden excursions into gory episodes when someone has missed a turn and gone airborne and landed hard, maybe for good. Just when you think things are slowing down and getting contemplative, Perry takes off with explicit and expert accounts of traumatic events that race the blood.
Some of the medical detail reminded me of the work of surgeon/author Richard Selzer in the way we get close-ups of life and death situations—but most of Selzer’s trips were to the relatively predictable environment of the operating room, while Perry’s trauma tales might happen in the raw moments or hours before the surgeon ever comes into the picture. Though the book is primarily a memoir, composed of stories linked to a place, it would almost make a useful “how to” book for prospective EMT’s or would-be volunteer fire people.
At least one reviewer compares Perry’s look at his Wisconsin environs to Garrison Keillor’s visions of Lake Wobegon. Both writers are wry and funny and sometimes sentimental about the American village. But Perry actually lives in his small town and his accounts are grittier, informed by day-to-day encounters with his farmer brothers and the crowd at the Corner Tap—and there is that whole non-English major education and world of experience fighting fires and cinching up traction splints that gets us closer than Keillor gets into the starker sides of rural life, closely observed.
You can get acquainted with Perry by sampling his blog, “Latest News” at www.Sneezingcow.com, where you can watch film clips he has done for Wisconsin Public Radio and hear sound clips from National Public Radio. There we also learn that he is a songwriter and plays in a band called the Long Beds (mostly “roughneck folk”). He does freelance writing for magazines, including Men’s Health (well, he is a registered nurse). You can check out his other books there, and get an update on Mr. Perry’s family life—a topic not so fully explored in the book, but which seems to have expanded since he wrote it.
Perry’s book is a great choice for our common reader since this Sigma Tau Delta project was created by the Service Committee, and Perry has been doing a lot of public service: nurse, EMT, volunteer fire fighter—and let’s not forget writer, a chronicler of life in a small place, minutely and sensitively observed which makes it resonate for readers everywhere.