Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren At A Time – by Michael Perry (2003)

Population 485

This isn’t your usual non-fiction read. It’s not quite a biography, not quite an orderly book on a particular topic. It’s the words of a man reminiscing about a small town and its volunteer fire department. The author admits that his natural tendency is to be rather hermit-like. But working with the local fire department has bonded him to the the little community that he grew up in and returned to.  Mr. Perry describes his job as an emergency responder:

“In New Auburn, we are on call twenty-four hours a day. We are not scheduled, we are simply assumed to be available. We carry our pagers everywhere we go, we sleep with them beside the bed. You get so you jump at anything that beeps or jingles. I stayed with a friend over the holidays, and she had this Christmas clock with a little Dickens scene, and every hour on the hour, it played a wheezy electronic carol, the first note of which matched the tone of the fire page. Every hour on the hour, that clock would fire up, and I’d jerk as if I’d been goosed.

“I was paged one hundred and six times last year. Fires, drunks, babies, grandmothers. Injured farmers, frightened salesmen, old fishermen. The pager is on my hip right now, even as I type. It will go off, perhaps in the next five minutes, perhaps next Tuesday when I am in the bathroom. My heart will jump. If I’m getting something from under the sink, I may crack my head on the grease trap. I’ll listen for the details, find out where, begin forming a half-baked picture in my head. I’ll run across the backyard, headed for the hall. Whoever’s out there needing help, they’re getting me, for better or worse. Me, and a handful of my neighbors…” (from pages 159-160)

After reading this book, I thought about how difficult it must be to do emergency work in such a small community. You would probably know most of the people you were called on to help. You would need to emotionally detach yourself at the emergency scene so that you wouldn’t become too panicked or upset to help them. I, for one, am very grateful for people who have the gift of being able to handle emergencies calmly and efficiently, whether in a large city or in a small hometown like New Auburn. God bless those firemen and ambulance EMTs!


Life Goes On – by Philip Gulley (2004)

Life Goes On

I absolutely loved “Home To Harmony” and “Just Shy Of Harmony”, earlier books in the Harmony series by this author, but “Life Goes On” left me with a very different aftertaste. The book covers the fourth year of Sam Gardner as the minister of a small Quaker congregation. Once again, the story focuses on Sam’s relationship with various members of his church.

The book had some parts that made me laugh hysterically, such as the chapter where the church secretary gives Sam a ferret for his boys. Then there was the chapter where a vegetarian girl is chosen as the “Sausage Queen” for the annual parade and scholarship. The stories about having laryngitis on Sunday morning, having a close encounter with an endangered animal, and trying to repair things at home without using a professional were amusing.

But the majority of the book was quite negative. The members of Sam’s congregation are  nasty people. They start rumors, tell lies about Sam, battle over who’s going to teach a Sunday School class, steal, and hate Democrats and liberal media. The mental picture that the reader gets is that most Christians are legalistic, narrow-minded, vindictive people.

Dale Hinshaw is a major player in the storyline. He treats his wife shabbily while pretending to be a super-spiritual person. He is hungry for power and position, and is part of the attempt to fire Sam. Previous books give Dale some redeeming qualities, but in this novel there is nothing good about him. He is a character to be despised.

Even Sam is a great disappointment, not sure of what he believes, and unwilling to stand up to the people who are destroying him. He seems apathetic throughout the story. Instead of being a leader of his little congregation, his little congregation drags him around and beats him up. It seems to me that he needs to find another job.

“Life Goes On” left me with a sour taste in my mouth, and a wish that I had passed on this book.

Just Shy Of Harmony – by Philip Gulley (2001)

Just Shy Of Harmony

The story that began with “Home To Harmony” continues on in “Just Shy Of Harmony”. The first book was the feel-good one, the one that made you want to live in the quaint little town of Harmony. But the second book has a decidedly different feel about it. Life is not so rosy. Pastor Sam is underpaid, overworked, tired of tending to the problems of everyone, and is beginning to question if there is a God. During Sam’s spiritual crisis, other members of the congregation take over the Sunday morning preaching.

But Sam’s not the only having troubles. There’s Dale Hinshaw, who is trying to get his scripture-chicken-egg evangelism program off the ground. Jessie Peacock, through no effort of her own, has won millions of dollars in the lottery, but wants to refuse the money. Wayne Fleming is struggling to raise his kids after his wife Sally runs off, but is shocked when she returns and wants to just go back to normal.

Mixed in with the problems of the church folk are the heartwarming parts of the book, like when one of the women at church took Wayne’s children under her wing. Also very touching was when the women’s group from church took over the hospital kitchen to make homemade noodle and chicken for a woman who was a patient there. (That didn’t seem like something the health department would allow in real life, but hey, this is fiction.) And I loved that the church members were willing to anoint Sally with oil and lay hands on her in prayer, even though their church had never done that before.

Overall, I enjoyed this Philip Gulley novel just as much as the first one!


Home To Harmony – by Philip Gulley (2000)

Home To Harmony

Welcome to the little town of Harmony! Sam Gardner grew up there, went away to college, and is now returning (with wife and kids) to be the pastor of the small Quaker church congregation. He’s getting re-acquainted with many of the people he knew as a child, and meeting new folks.

This book has a similar feel to the “Mitford” books written by Jan Karon, although the male characters are more dominant in this book. My favorite character – beside Sam of course – was Sam’s ancient male secretary, who didn’t always see so well but had a real heart for encouraging people around him. Reading about Harmony made me wish the town really existed so that I could visit it.

Excerpt from the first page:

“I liked living where I did, in Harmony. I liked that the Dairy Queen sold ice cream cones for a dime. I liked that I could ride my Schwinn Typhoon there without crossing Main Street, which my mother didn’t allow.

I liked that I lived four blocks from the Kroger grocery store, where every spring they stacked bags of peat moss out front. My brother and I would climb on the bags and vault from stack to stack. Once, on a particularly high leap, my brother hit the K in KROGER with his head, causing the neon tube to shatter. For the next year, the sign flashed ROGER, which we considered an amazing coincidence since that was my brother’s name. He liked to pass by at night and see his name in lights.”

The Readers Of Broken Wheel Recommend – by Katarina Bivald (2016)


I absolutely loved this novel of Sara, a young Swedish woman whose life is wrapped up in books. Books are more real to her than real life. She orders a book from an elderly woman- Amy – in the tiny town of Broken Wheel, Iowa. The two women, who both live to read, become pen-pals, exchanging both letters and books. Amy urges Sara to come for a long visit, so when the store Sara works in closes, leaving her unemployed, she figures it’s an opportune time to visit America.

Things don’t turn out quite as she expects. For one thing, the town that sounds so adorable in Amy’s letters turns out to be a shabby, nearly-abandoned community. And another thing – Amy has just died. So Sara is in a town where she knows not a soul, and has no idea what to do next. The townsfolk convince her to stay in Amy’s house for a while instead of immediately returning to Sweden.

The rest of the story tells how she tries to share her love of books and reading with those around her. Sara gets to know the eclectic residents of the town, and finds friendship, love, and a sense of home for the first time in her life.

Note: There is some sexual content – although not very detailed – and references to categories of books that some readers may find objectionable.

The Little Bookstore Of Big Stone Gap – by Wendy Welch (2012)


Wendy and her husband Jack were tired of the big city and its fast-paced, high pressure jobs. So they set out to find another kind of life. They stumbled across an old 1903 Edwardian house in the Appalachian town of Big Stone Gap, and instantly knew it was the place of their dreams. Knowing next to nothing about running a small business, they moved into the upstairs, and turned the rest of the house into a second-hand bookstore. The first year was a roller coaster, as they made blunders as well as spectacular progress.

There were two main things I loved about this book:

First, Wendy’s observations about books and the people they are matched up with. Books, whether science fiction, cookbooks, westerns, or travel, fill a need in their lives. When you see a person find that book that makes their face light up, it makes you happy too.

Second, Wendy talks about everyone needing a third space, a place other than work or home, where someone knows you, and you can just be yourself and relax. Wendy and Jack’s bookstore became that third space for many people in town. By the end of the book, I found myself wishing that I was part of this wonderful little community.

(re-posted from April 9, 2014)

Saint Ben – by John Fischer (1993)

Saint Ben


Remember that one friend you had as a kid that was like no other friend? He or she liked weird things, said what they really thought, and did stuff that everyone else would be embarrassed to do. You were drawn to this friend because he or she was so genuine, but you felt traditional and ordinary in comparison. You made an odd pair, but the friendship worked. Such is the friendship of Ben and Jonathan in the story “Saint Ben”.

Ben is the new preacher’s kid. Jonathan is the choir director’s son. The two boys develop a tight friendship, and are soon inseparable. They work on building miniature houses, delivering newspapers, and promoting the 1958 Edsel car. In his spare time, Ben comes up with pranks to liven up church, and Jonathan is his accomplice. You’ll laugh at the crazy things the boys get into.

I loved the conversations that Ben and Jonathan had throughout the book. Their chats go from trivial things to deep matters and back again. The serious and the silly are blended together perfectly. If you’re looking for a book about friendship in the 1950’s in a small town, this is your book.