Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Population: 485 by Michael Perry

As a volunteer fire fighter in New Auburn, Wisconsin, Michael Perry fights fires in houses, barns, cars, and fields. Being in a rural area with the nearest ambulance at least twenty minutes away, he is often first on the scene of car accidents, farm accidents, heart attacks, strokes, and suicides. It is a hell of a way to get to know the neighbors.

Perry grew up on a farm outside the town but left for ten years. After working as a cowboy out west (he was not very good at it) and going east to become a nurse and work for an ambulance service, he felt the need to return to New Auburn. In the chapter “My People,” he says the place called him back and land welcomed him, but he found it hard to feel accepted in the community. So he joined his mother and two brothers in the local volunteer fire department, where he met new people, including One-Eyed Beagle, a veteran volunteer whose ex-wives both worked at the Gas-N-Go.

In Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time, Perry often hears his pager in the middle of the night. He runs out of his house half clad and down the block to the firehouse, where he checks the county maps for the fastest roads to the emergency. He and the other volunteers throw their gear into the trucks and rush to the scene, where they may enter a burning building or prepare an accident victim for the arrival of the ambulance or helicopter. When the job is done, the volunteers have coffee and share the latest gossip.

The value of Perry’s stories comes from the wealth of detail and the author’s frank observations about how people deal with tragedy. The bonus is the humor. Perry balances the serious and comic aspects of his life well.

Perry’s newest book Off Main Street has just been published. Readers may also want to visit Perry’s website http://www.sneezingcow.com/ to learn more about the author and an archive of writings for Salon and Road King trucking magazine.

Perry, Michael. Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. ISBN 0060198524.

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2 comments:

'brary web diva said...

You caught my attention with this review, as I do read many firefighters-as-authors titles.
I was surprised that my library owned this one (17 circs since Jan 2003) and that it hadn't gone our since Nov. 2003.

To be fair...so far I'm only on chapter 3.

I would not recommend this book to professional firefighters (such as my husband...a professional for DOD and a volunteer on our local dept.)
Why not? This seems written for the mainstream readers who are in awe of firefighters.
He interspurses just enough of the technical terms (EMS and fire) to place the layperson in awe. "...I've had enough training to tell a halligan from a hydrant wrench." [page 4]
Yeah, me too, and I'm just a librarian.

Just a book about a man searching for a purpose in life who happens to be a volunteer firefighter.

If Jimmy Stewart had been a volunteer firefighter in "It's a Wonderful Life" perhaps this would be the book.

Firefighters have life-changing experiences (some positive, some negative) on the calls they respond to, but those experiences mean more to them and their brothers on the call, than they do to people hearing the story.

Firefighters often talk of the bond between their coworkers based on the shared experiences and often say outsiders just can't comprehend & understand it.

Perry's recollections simply don't carry the same weight they would with his coworkers.

Instead, if you're trying to get inside the head of a firefighter, I'd recommend "Firehouse" by Dennis Halberstam. The author got to know the members of FDNY Engine 40 Ladder 25, which suffered the most casualties on 9/11.

"Firehouse" by Dennis Halberstam; New York : Hyperion, c2002. ISBN: 1401300057

ricklibrarian said...

Thanks for the comments. I love comments.

I think Perry's book is more about rural life than it is about fire fighting. He is an amateur fire fighter, which he admits at some point in the book. He makes mistakes which he also admits.

I would guess from reading the book that Perry attends more accidents and other emergencies than fires. The fire department is an umbrella for many services.

The strength of the book is in portraying people in a small town. That is what I recommend.