A Look Back, Hoping Forward

Visiting Tom: A Man, A Highway, andThe Road To Roughneck Grace, by Michael Perry


There’s a lot to say about this book, and I don’t think I can say it all in a blog post. First, the serendipity: some 6-7 years ago, when I was doing a lot of driving for various reasons, the missus gave me a book on CDs – Population: 485, by this same Michael Perry. Some weeks ago, a musician friend offered to introduce me to Perry (he didn’t follow up), and out of curiosity I bought this book. Only as I turned the last page did I realize this was the same Michael Perry.

Back when the CD was published, the credits had Perry thusly: “A registered nurse and former working cowboy currently…with two rural rescue services and one fire department. The current bio has him an amateur pig farmer, still a member of the same rescue services, and a contributing editor to Men’s Health.

I’m putting all this up front because the book purports to be about one Tom Hartwig and his wife, Arlene. But as is the case with memoir, the book is more about Perry – through his relationship to the Hartwigs. The story is basically this:

The Perrys and Hartwigs are neighbors in rural Wisconsin, and many years ago a highway was built through Hartwig’s property. This was in the era of massive roadbuilding in the U.S., and roadbuilding was only possible by obtaining property and rights of way through the dicey device of imminent domain, which more or less forces property owners to give up portions of their property for the greater good of things such as roads. The device’s potency has since been watered down severely as building new roads has become less critical to the nation’s functioning.

Perry empathizes with Hartwig’s long-ago trauma, and there is a current fight with the state highway folks over a bad decision on a minor road used by few people. Hartwig is of the old order – a self sufficient, individualistic farmer who is gaining in years. Perry is not of that cloth, but he has a more than grudging admiration for Tom and Arlene and the individualistic manner in which they’ve lived their lives. The central metaphor in Perry’s tale here is a cannon Tom has built and occasionally fires. The piece of artillery is similar to Civil War weaponry, which is seen to have nostalgic value to Tom and Perry. Too, Tom has made the dad-gummed thing himself, and the simulated cannonballs and powder. Yankee ingenuity – the centerpiece of this country for more than 200 years. Ah, if we could only find a way to be so individualistic these days, Perry seems to lament.

But, Perry notices, Tom has changed. He still begrudges the road, but he’s able to adapt to such upsets in his life. And so Perry realizes that despite his own desire to look longingly over his shoulder at the past, he must overcome upsets, too, and move on. As we writes in the final pages:

“This is the universe suggesting that it is quite capable of absorbing my wobbles, and that if need be, it can spare the bulk of an entire galaxy to do the job.”

As you notice, this post is more of an essay inspired by reading Perry’s book, and not a book review, and that’s a testament to the thoughts and emotions this book conjures in me. I’m not cut from the same cloth as Perry, who sees the past here through a romanticist’s eyes, although my Southern heritage sometimes demands in a very loud voice that I pay homage to the past. My impulse is to look forward, however, and do whatever I might to prepare for a future I have no way of divining. Still, Perry and I both know that the present is where the action is, the only time, the only state of mind that matters.


My rating: 18 of 20 stars


Visit my website here, and my FB Fan Page here for more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you. I’ll soon be adding podcasts of selected book reviews to my website, as well as an opportunity to buy mp3 files of my reading of Sam’s Place – Stories, so look for those.



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