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

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

4.0 33
by Michael Perry, Mike Perry

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

USA Today
“Swells with unadorned heroism. He’s the real thing .”
Adrienne Miller
“This is a quietly devastating book—intimate and disarming and lovely.”
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.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.89(d)

Read an Excerpt

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, tellher 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.

What People are Saying About This

Adrienne Miller
“This is a quietly devastating book—intimate and disarming and lovely.”

Meet the Author

Michael Perry is a humorist, radio host, songwriter, and the New York Times bestselling author of several nonfiction books, including Visiting Tom and Population: 485, as well as a novel, The Jesus Cow. He lives in northern Wisconsin with his family and can be found online at www.sneezingcow.com.

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Population 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 33 reviews.
DanDman8 More than 1 year ago
Could not put it done. You can tell when a writter loves the material. Write about what you know, Mike knows his material...his life. Very funny.
KimHeniadis More than 1 year ago
This was a fantastic read, although I may be a bit biased since I live in a small village in Wisconsin. Michael Perry is a wonderful storyteller, and his those skills shine in this memoir. Even though this is a small town, I think readers will see many similarities with people in their own neighborhoods, even if you live in a big city. Perry often says that he stays a bit apart from the community, but the way he writes with such depth and emotion about the various people in the town, makes it feel otherwise. And how he incorporates local history, at just the right moment, is done perfectly. It never feels jarring to go from reading about one of his neighbors, to reading about how the local fire department was formed. For me, sometimes reading about history can be a bit dull, but Perry makes it interesting, adding a touch of humor to lighten it up a bit. Learning about first responders was another very interesting part to this book. I have never realized that they do so much. Besides being there while the crisis is happening, they also stick around afterwards to clean up the scene. And the fact that they are volunteers, making very little money, and still being on call pretty much 24/7, is amazing. They give so much to their community without asking for anything in return. Although some of the scenes are graphic, Perry doesn’t write them that way for shock value, and it made me think even more highly of the people who do this, and all they have to deal with. I highly, highly recommend this book. And if you have the time, encourage you to volunteer as a first responder.
LovesBooksMA More than 1 year ago
I am ordering this book! Michael Perry is a gifted storyteller; I've enjoyed his other books and looking forward to Population 485.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Funny, thoughtful and insightful.
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Donna Huntress More than 1 year ago
this is one of my favorite books. you are tempted to readit outloud to your friends.
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Dollycas More than 1 year ago
Michael Perry returns back to his home town, New Auburn, Wisconsin. A town in Northwestern Wisconsin, Population 485. He left 10 years ago and landed in Wyoming were he worked as a cowboy and put himself through nursing school. Now he is home, has bought a house on Main Street and is happy to be closer to his mother and brothers. Both his brothers belong to the fire department and his mother is a first responder for the area. Michael decides the best way to reconnect with the community is to join the fire department and use his nursing training to study to become an EMT and his mother joins him in the class. This is your typical small town, everyone knows everything about everybody, and Michael thinks it's the perfect place to write. Using the emergency calls, grass and chimney fires, accidents and dinners as background for his stories he brings the little town to life on the pages of this book. Humor and tragedy, heartbreak and devastating heartache we meet Michael's neighbors one siren at a time. I LIKED IT!!!! I had several reasons for wanting to read this book. First, when I started this blog I challenged myself to read books written by Wisconsin authors or that used Wisconsin as the setting for the story. This books meets both those requirements. Secondly, I am from a small town in Wisconsin, a little bigger than New Auburn, but growing up there was pure joy and at that time, everyone knew everything about everybody. That town has changed and grown and is no longer the town of my memories. Also while growing up in that small town, my father was a fireman, later the fire chief, and when the fire department was in charge of the ambulance service he was the equivalent of what is now an EMT or First Responder. He even had the Fire Training School at Madison Area Technical College dedicated to him just 2 weeks after he died. The stories in this book were wonderfully told and brought back so many memories. It prompted a call to my sister who had also read the book some time ago and we spent an hour reminiscing about our dad, who passed away in 1988, some of the stories were so funny, we wish we could write a book. Thank you Michael Perry for writing this book and giving us our Dad back for a few minutes. Michael Perry has the gift of storytelling and anyone who likes to read about life in a small town, firefighters, EMTs, or anyone who believes in giving back will appreciate and truly enjoy this book. If you would just like to read a good story told by a fresh voice you will like this book. Note: This book was published in 2002 and new copies of this book may be hard to find but there are plenty used copies available at both Barnes & Noble.com and Amazon.com. This book was from my private collection. No compensation was received.
neccy More than 1 year ago
i expected much more from this book than i got..while the idea was great.i was expecting the writing to be (lets say) more small town..i sometimes felt as if i were reading about two different stories..one down to earth and the other written by a rhodes scholar who didn't seem to belong in a small town..it was a difficult book to finish...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My husband is a volunteer firefighter, and we both grew up - and now live - in a very small rural community. I can relate to this author and his anecdotes. I wouldn't say it's necessarily the most intriguing book I've ever read, but it made me laugh right out loud (honestly!) and also cry with empathy at some of his experiences. I think Perry is an interesting person whose writing style is enjoyable to read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
medster25 More than 1 year ago
This was meant to be a rewarding read about rural Wisconsin living. At times it seems Mr. Perry had his thesaurus always close by. He loves to interject unnessary unusal words. They serve no purpose other than perhaps to point out he knows big words. No one from northern Wisconsin would interject "gobsmacked" into a conversation.....this over use of langauge spoiled what could have been a lovely trip thru rural life. There are some excellent insights into being a good neighbor and survival in a community of sparse resources.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Too many $5 words that interrupted the flow of my reading. I sometimes had to force myself to sit down with it. For me, it didn't fulfill the promise I felt the book had.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pewaukeepen More than 1 year ago
I grew up in the Eau Claire WI area and had relatives that lived in the New Auberne area, so chose the book influenced by that. I found the description of the EMT experience, and the family involvement very interesting. I mostly liked the authors style, but felt it dragged on a bit near the end. I will read his "Truck" novel next.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
What a charming story of an EMT's experiences in a small town, told with love and humor. I have a degree in English and I work in health care, but I cannot put together phrases like this. 'Size XXXL in a size XL Nascar shirt' will stay with me forever.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I couldnt put this book down. I feel like I know these people, and could relate to their losses and happiness.
Guest More than 1 year ago
i just about fell out of bed and needed the police to get me back in. I total enjoyed the book and the story lines of real life in wisconsin. Since i live in the far reaches of northern wisconsin they were very true. It also depicts the lives of the first responders, EMTs and fire fighter in small town wisconsin and some of the issuse that the face on every call. It does not make light hearted of the real tragic happenings, and faces it with the emotional response and not the grewsome detail of the event. It drew out some of the emotions that i have lived through with being a wife to a pager addicted, adreline addicted man.