A little over a year and a half ago, my wife and I moved from a medium sized city to a small town in rural Iowa. Even before we stepped foot in the state, I received an email inviting me to join the volunteer fire department. At the time, it seemed all the qualifications necessary were, as Michael Perry puts it in Population: 485, ‘availability and a valid driver’s license.’ In my time on the fire department I have learned a lot about the work, the people, and the place we now call home. A couple months ago, Population: 485 was recommended to me because of how it mirrored my own situation.
Population:485 is part memoir and part rumination on the deeper things in life. After moving back home to rural Wisconsin, Perry joins the volunteer fire department. He shares humorous stories of an EMT practicing putting IVs between his toes, a one-eyed fire fighting butcher, and the various mishaps that take place in the line of duty. Yet, Perry also reflects on trying to maintain composure when you know the victim of the car crash, going back to the basics while improvising when a situation goes sideways, and later driving around the same corner where you watched someone die. Both the move home and his experiences as a fire fighter and EMT serve as starting points for engaging larger issues of life, death, place, and belonging. Population:485 weaves a variety of stories together with Perry’s reflections. Each chapter follows one central story (usually a fire call) while drawing in snapshots of other events.
Overall, I enjoyed the book. Perry’s language and description of particular scenes can be somewhat brutal, but it rings true. The strength of the book lies in the way he captures both the decline and beauty of small town America. Perry is able to paint a picture of the loss experiences by these small towns in the last hundred years, but also convey their depth, beauty, and resilience. In Population:485, this small town serves as a vivid example of the value and importance of place and belonging. Geography and personalities meld together into a place that one loves even as they laugh at its absurdity. I truly wish more of us loved our places with the depth Perry expresses.
However, much of the book is given over to Perry’s reflections on the nature of life and death. As he shares pictures of car crashes, house calls, and structure fires, the loss and death begins to take on a certain meaninglessness character. There is no larger purpose or hope, it is simply ‘your turn’ for tragedy. The role of place and people becomes inflated in order to provide meaning, hope, and solace in what Perry seems to see as inexplicable tragedy. In this way, Perry not only embraces a form of fatalism, but puts more strain on the community than it can bear. In other words, I wish proper Christian hope had played a part in his reflections on death. In this way, he might have better embraced the gift of people and place without overburdening them in the face of death.