As the poet John Cougar Mellencamp said, "I can be myself here in this small town." Some of the most unapologetic, memorable characters in fiction live in small towns, which are themselves laden with secrets and contradictions. By Alexander HulsMay 11, 2017 9:55 AM
G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce variety and uncompromising divergences of men.” Good old Chesterton may have been writing about the institution of family outside the city, but he may as well also have been summarizing the appeal of a particular kind of fiction: small town stories.
Tales of small town living can take a range of paths. On one end, you have stories that are like snow globes capturing the nostalgic idyll of small town living offering simpler, or better, times. Those tales can be soothing balms, like the warm steam coming up from a freshly brewed tea as you’re about to take your first sip. On the other end, there are stories that unmask the romanticism of small town simplicity as a shallow facade, barely hiding long-running unhappiness, secrets, or outright corruptions.
Some stories, like Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel, Anything is Possible, can find the truth somewhere in between. The book’s nine interconnected stories present a kaleidoscope (or variety and divergences, if you will) of human foibles and vulnerability. She uses Amgash, Illinois as a keyhole into the inner hearts of its inhabitants, and in turn uses them as a keyhole into the inner hearts of us all. It is something that all small town fiction, whether optimistic or cynical, does to one degree or another.
Which brings us back to our friend G.K. Chesterton’s point: There’s a breadth of life to be found in small towns, and that’s why it’s always so welcome when masters of fiction recognize small towns as the microcosms they can be, finding within them a range of stories to entertain and enlighten us.
With that in mind, here are ten all-time great works of small town fiction that do just that: show off what stories can be told about Main Street, U.S.A. and its inhabitants — whether you like your small town tales in the key of Bedford Falls, Twin Peaks, or somewhere in the middle.