Answering the Siren's Call

Population 485     Michael Perry

234 pp., Harper Collins 2002  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern 13 November 2004


      This little gem of a book is about New Auburn, in the north-western corner of Wisconsin, land where farms alternate with forests and lakes, where people coexist with deer and the occasional bear. Garrison Keillor's "Lake Wobegon" is a humorous reflection on such a community, and New Auburn is indeed just across the state line from St. Paul, Minnesota. This book, however, is about the real thing. Michael Perry's words are clear, terse, factual and unpretentious, yet he is also a poet, so his book is rich in reflection, beauty, emotion and wider meanings.

    Perry grew up on a farm near New Auburn, and trained elsewhere as an emergency medical technician (EMT). After returning to town, still a bachelor, he joined the fire department and rescue squad, in part to help re-integrate with the community. Here is a collection of stories from that association, describing the bond which exists among fire fighters, and between them and their small community. Both men and women participate: the writer's mother is among the active members, as are his two brothers.

    The stories are a pleasure to read. Fire fighters and rescue squad members deal with emergencies, and those do not always end happily: the job can be demanding, frustrating and even dangerous. The moment one hears the siren, one is expected to drop whatever one does and rush to the station, because speed is essential, distances can be great out in the country, and in winter the brutal cold makes rescue work even more difficult. At the scene of a fire, one must judge where to enter, what tools to use, when bold steps are called for and when it is wiser to retreat. And with no doctors around, the EMT is often the only source of medical help for a highway accident victim or for an elderly citizen in trouble. A thorough training with a large array of professional tools is expected, because anything the EMT cannot provide requires an airlift by helicopter to a regional hospital. Some lives are saved, some are not, and death is a constant haunting presence.

    Yet you will enjoy reading it all. In the big city, amid a teeming population, one can still be very, very lonely. Out in rural Wisconsin, it seems, every life is cherished, every person stands out. Life is neither easy nor simple, but it has a wholesome quality often missing in urban life. If the view from your window is dominated by brick, concrete and asphalt, read "Population 485" and breathe in a fresh atmosphere.


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Author and Curator:   David P. Stern
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Last updated 13 November 2004