Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time

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Welcome to New Auburn, Wisconsin (population: 485), where the local vigilante is a farmer's wife armed with a pistol and a Bible, the most senior member of the volunteer fire department is a cross-eyed butcher with one kidney and two ex-wives (both of whom work at the only gas station in town), and the back roads are haunted by the ghosts of children and farmers. Michael Perry loves this place. He grew up here, and now — after a decade away — he has returned.

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Welcome to New Auburn, Wisconsin (population: 485), where the local vigilante is a farmer's wife armed with a pistol and a Bible, the most senior member of the volunteer fire department is a cross-eyed butcher with one kidney and two ex-wives (both of whom work at the only gas station in town), and the back roads are haunted by the ghosts of children and farmers. Michael Perry loves this place. He grew up here, and now — after a decade away — he has returned.

Unable to polka or repair his own pickup, his farm-boy hands gone soft after years of writing, Mike figures the best way to regain his credibility is to join the volunteer fire department. Against a backdrop of fires and tangled wrecks, bar fights and smelt feeds, he tells a frequently comic tale leavened with moments of heartbreaking delicacy and searing tragedy. Tracing his calls on a map in the little firehouse, he sees "a dense, benevolent web, spun one frantic zigzag at a time" from which the story of a tiny town emerges, building to a final chapter that is at once devastating and transcendent.

Author Biography: Michael Perry was raised on a small dairy farm near New Auburn, Wisconsin, and put himself through nursing school working as a cowboy in Wyoming. As of this writing, he is the only member of the New Auburn Area Fire Department to have missed the monthly meeting because of a poetry reading.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
[Perry's] account of what he's learned from seven years of burning barns and midnight medevacs shows his obvious affection for a rural Midwestern world where ''visiting with'' someone means hours of shooting the breeze and a ''supper club'' is the height of sophistication. Perry confesses that his loyalties are divided between ''the Gun Rack Crowd and the Pale and Tortured Contingent'' -- yielding a narrative style that jolts between nicely downplayed redneck realism (''We went there because a woman thought she was having a heart attack. I believe what she was having was her 17th beer'') and sensitivo posturing (''We find a trail leading back over the landscape of time, and we find ourselves bearing forward the remnants of a distant aesthetic not immediately evident in our detritus, but ours to claim, nonetheless''). — Alida Becker
Publishers Weekly
When writer Perry returned to his tiny childhood town, New Auburn, Wisc., after 12 years away, he joined the village' s volunteer fire and rescue department. Six years later, he' d begun to understand at last that to truly live in a place, you must give your life to that place. These charming, discursive essays are loosely structured around the calls Perry responds to as a volunteer EMT, including everything from a collision at the local Laundromat to heart attacks, fires and suicides. Perry' s mosaic of smalltown life also paints charming portraits of the town' s memorable characters, such as the One-Eyed Beagle, another firefighter. Perry' s insights into the small-town mentality come from apparent contemplation, and he writes about them with good humor, in prose reminiscent of Rick Bragg' s: The old man says he had a woozy spell, and so he took some nitroglycerin pills. This is like saying you had high blood pressure so you did your taxes. In spite of an enormous surprise in the final chapter, the book' s lack of central conflict leaves it feeling desultory, like a collection of good magazine pieces rather than a propulsive chronicle of quirky small-towners la John Berendt' s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Still, there are moments in which Perry achieves an unforced lyricism: Rescue work is like jazz. Improvisation based on fundamentals. (Oct. 11) Forecast: A blurb from Michael Korda himself a recent aficionado of small-town living and the current hoopla surrounding volunteer firemen and EMT workers will attract buyers to Perry' s celebration of Middle America. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641601019
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/8/2002
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.44 (w) x 9.08 (h) x 0.91 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Perry is an amateur pig farmer, an active member of the local rescue service, and a contributing editor to Men's Health. He lives in rural Wisconsin with his wife and two daughters, and can be found online at www.sneezingcow.com.

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First Chapter

Chapter One

Jabowski's Corner

We are in trouble down here. There is blood in the dirt. We have made our call for help. Now we look to the sky.

Summer here comes on like a zaftig hippie chick, jazzed on chlorophyll and flinging fistfuls of butterflies to the sun. The swamps grow spongy and pungent. Standing water goes warm and soupy, clotted with frog eggs and twitching with larvae. Along the ditches, heron-legged stalks of canary grass shoot six feet high and unfurl seed plumes. In the fields, the clover pops its blooms and corn trembles for the sky.

If you were approaching from the sky, you would see farmland neatly delineated by tilled squares and irrigated circles. The forests, mostly hardwoods and new-growth pine, butt up against fields, terminating abruptly, squared off at fence lines. The swamps and wetlands, on the other hand, respect no such boundaries, and simply meander the lay of the land, spreading organically in fecund hundred-acre stains. The whole works is done up in an infinite palette of greens.

There is a road below, a slim strip of county two-lane, where the faded blacktop runs east-west, then bends -- at Jabowski's Corner -- like an elbow. In the crook of the elbow, right in the space where you would cradle a baby, is a clot of people. My mother is there, and my sister, and several volunteer firefighters, and I have just joined them, and we are all on our knees, kneeling in a ring around a young girl who has been horribly injured in a car wreck. She is crying out, and we are doing what we can, but she feels death pressing at her chest. She tells us this, and we deny it, tell her no, no, help is on the way.

I do my writing in a tiny bedroom overlooking Main Street in the village of New Auburn, Wisconsin. Population: 485. Eleven streets. One four-legged silver water tower. Seasons here are extreme. We complain about the heat and brag about the cold. Summer is for stock cars and softball. Winter is for Friday-night fish fries. And snowmobiles. After a good blizzard, you'll hear their Doppler snarl all through the dark, and down at the bar, sleds will outnumber cars. In the surrounding countryside, farmsteads with little red barns have been pretty much kicked in the head, replaced with monster dairies, turkey sheds, and vinyl-sided prefabs. The farmers who came to town to grind feed and grumble in the café have faded away. The grand old buildings are gone. There is a sense of decline. Or worse, of dormancy in the wake of decline. But we are not dead here. We still have our Friday-night football games. Polka dances. Bowling. If you know who to ask, you can still get yourself some moonshine, although methamphetamine has become the favored homebrew. Every day, the village dogs howl at the train that rumbles through town, and I like to think they are echoing their ancestors, howling at that first train when it stopped here in 1883. Maybe that's all you need to know about this town -- the train doesn't stop here anymore.

Mostly I write at night, when most of this wee town -- except for the one-man night shift at the plastics factory, and the most dedicated drinkers, and the mothers with colicky babies, and the odd insomniac widower, and the young couples tossing and turning over charge card balances and home pregnancy tests -- is asleep. This is my hometown, and in these early hours, when time is gathering itself, I can kill the lights, crack the blinds, and, looking down on Main Street, see the ghost of my teenage self, snake-dancing beneath the streetlight, celebrating some football game twenty years gone. I was a farm boy then, rarely in town for anything other than school activities. I didn't see Main Street unless I was in a parade or on a school bus.

But now Main Street is in my front yard. On a May evening nineteen years ago I walked out of the school gym in a blue gown and left this place. Now I have returned, to a house I remember only from the perspective of a school bus seat. In a place from the past, I am looking for a place in the present. This, as they say, is where my roots are. The trick is in reattaching. About a month after I moved back, I dropped by the monthly meeting of the volunteer fire department.

The New Auburn fire department was formed in 1905. The little village was just thirty years old, but it had already seen its share of change. The sawmill that spawned the settlement ran out of pine trees and shut down before the turn of the century. Forests gave way to farmland and New Auburn became a potato shipping center. Large, hutlike charcoal kilns sprang up beside the rail depot. In time, the village has been home to a wagon wheel factory, a brick factory, and a pickle factory. There was always something coming and going. But then, in 1974, the state converted the two lanes of Highway 53 to four lanes and routed them west of town, and the coming and going pretty much went. We have a gas station, two cafés, a couple of bars, and a handful of small businesses, but the closest thing to industry is the plastics factory, which employs two men per shift, rolling plastic pellets into plastic picnic table covers. Most of the steady work, the good-paying stuff, is thirty or forty miles away. During the day, the streets are still. It is from this shallow pool that the community must skim its firefighters. If we get a fire call during a weekday, we are likely to have more fire trucks than volunteer firefighters to drive them.

During that first meeting, a motion was made and seconded to consider my application as a member. The motion carried on a voice vote, and I was admitted on probationary status. After the meeting concluded, the chief led me to the truck bay. He is a stout man, burly but friendly. By day he dispatches freight trucks. "Try on these boots," he said. "We've got a helmet around here somewhere." Someone handed me a stiff pair of old fire pants -- bunkers, they're called. A farmer in a bar jacket showed me how to shift the pumper, his cigarette a sing-along dot dancing from word to word. That was it. I was now a member of the NAAFD -- the New Auburn Area Fire Department.

Population: 485. Copyright © by Michael Perry. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide

Welcome to New Auburn, Wisconsin -- population 485. Twelve years ago, author Michael Perry left this place. Now he is back, living on Main Street and hoping to reconnect with his hometown. A month after returning, Perry drops by the monthly meeting of the local volunteer fire department and finds himself voted into the roster. Outfitted with hand-me-down gear and shown how to drive the fire truck, Perry -- an EMT and nurse by training -- begins answering fire and ambulance calls. After a particularly moving call, he writes, "I began to realize how this fire department was a means of reentry…a way to weave myself back into the fabric of a place…to accrete history and acquaintance…to meet my neighbors at the invitation of the fire siren." Propelled by dramatic events, Population: 485 is also a thoughtful and frequently humorous exploration of an American small town. Beyond the blood and fire, much of the color is provided by the cast of local characters. Bob the One-Eyed Beagle is a visually-impaired butcher with one kidney and two ex-wives -- both of whom work at the only gas station in town. A scooter-bound woman named Ramona calls the ambulance to rescue her overheated goose. The local vigilante is a farmer's wife armed with a pistol and a Bible. Perry's exploration of the human need for a sense of place unfolds from a series of offbeat perspectives -- an archive of village board minutes from the turn of the 19th century, the rubble pile left by the demolition of the Farmers Store, a patch of cattails in the middle of a swamp, the heart of a raging trailer house fire, a speeding ambulance. Tracing his calls on a map in the firehouse, Perry sees"a dense, benevolent web, spun one frantic zigzag at a time," from which the story of a place and its people emerges. In the final chapter of Population: 485 Perry's younger brother and fellow firefighter Jed arrives first on an accident scene to find his wife of seven weeks in one of the cars, mortally injured. In telling his brother's story, Perry wonders if the power of place is sufficient to transcend this ultimate tragedy. Discussion Questions
  1. Have you returned home after being away for an extended period? If so, what was it like? Was town the same as you remembered? Did you choose to stay?
  2. Does New Auburn remind you of your community or any community you have been to? While Perry highlights details intended to make New Auburn and some of its residents seem unique, is it possible that these details also make them more universal?
  3. What is the small town dynamic? How does it differ from life in bigger cities? How is the small town dynamic replicated within segments of larger cities? Perry has said he enjoys exploring New York City. Might there not be comfort in the anonymity of a larger place?
  4. Perry seems to deal with the notion of death and emergency situations very calmly and rationally. Are these abilities inherent, or can they be learned? How do you deal with similar situations? How did you feel when you read the line, "Puke is the great constant."?
  5. Perry explores the stressful aspects of fire and ambulance calls, but he also suggests that even the worst calls weave themselves into a sense of history and place that is ultimately comforting. How does the passage of time contribute to this process? How might it differ from person to person?
  6. Not everyone can go home or would want to. What is it in Perry's personality that draws him back to his hometown? Is finding your place in the community an active or a passive process?
  7. If you could share a bowl of piping hot deep-fried cheese curds with one character in Population: 485, who would it be, and why?
About the Author: Michael Perry was raised on a dairy farm in New Auburn, Wisconsin. He has worked at a variety of jobs including forklift driver, backhoe operator, truck driver, proofreader, physical therapy aide, and put himself through nursing school by working as a cowboy in Wyoming. His writing has appeared in Esquire, Newsweek, New York Times Magazine, Salon, and many others. To date, Perry is the only member of the New Auburn Area Fire Department to have missed a monthly meeting because of a poetry reading.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 14 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 9 of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 28, 2010


    By far, one of my all time favorite books. humorous, honest, and at times moving this is one hard cooy book I keep on my shelf at home. I've passed through the town of New Auburn a couple of times and each time I smile, knowing there are a cast if colorful characters who actually live there.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 24, 2005


    This book is more than just EMT experiences, Michael Perry's wonderful philosophies come to the fore. It entertains, makes for laughter and tears with a succinct interesting style. I highly recommend - no EMT, small town, or Wisconsin interests necessary.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2005

    How did this great book end up in The Bargain Bin?

    Michael Perry really makes the small town experience come alive. It's as though he's telling you the story over coffee in the local restaurant, low-key, yet exciting because we come to know everyone well. The only thing that throws it off (and whacks it down a star) is trying to reconcile his feelings for humanity with his hunter's insensitivity toward animals. The book would have been near-perfect if the taking it all for granted that we all enjoy watching animals die horrible deaths had been edited out.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 21, 2004

    I often wondered?

    I often wondered about life in small towns. Now, I know. Very interesting.

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    Posted November 18, 2010

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    Posted January 27, 2010

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    Posted December 6, 2010

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    Posted April 15, 2011

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