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Population: 485
Cover of Population: 485
Population: 485
Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time
Borrow Borrow

Mike Perry's extraordinary and thoughtful account of meeting the people of his small hometown by joining the fire and rescue team was a breakout hit that "swells with unadorned heroism" (USA Today)

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.

Mike Perry's extraordinary and thoughtful account of meeting the people of his small hometown by joining the fire and rescue team was a breakout hit that "swells with unadorned heroism" (USA Today)

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.

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Excerpts-
  • 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...

About 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.

Reviews-
  • Adrienne Miller, Esquire

    "This is a quietly devastating book--intimate and disarming and lovely."

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    HarperCollins
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Population: 485
Population: 485
Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time
Michael Perry
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