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ISSUE 116 VOL 7 PUBLISHED 11/1/2002

'Population' muses life's uncertainties

By Anonymous
Contributing Writer


Friday, November 1, 2002

Oftentimes the history of a place seems to be lost with the increasing tide of commercial businesses and new technology. As more roads and buildings are constructed, towns grow and no longer reflect the people and hard work that initiated the community in the past. Michael Perry, a volunteer rescue worker and firefighter, returned to his sparsely populated hometown, New Auburn, Wis. in order to realize again these significant connections to his past. The result is his humorous and sometimes suspenseful creative nonfiction work, Population: 485. Population: 485 is framed at the beginning and end with the tragic deaths of two beloved young women. In between these weighty moments of sadness, Perry rebuilds memories of his colleagues and friends as well as the history of New Auburn and its first volunteer firefighting squad. Through one of the town's true relics, Beagle, much of the history of New Auburn is relayed. Beagle is one of the cantankerous senior members on the volunteer firefighter squad and a source of comical delight for the reader. He is a butcher with a rough exterior, but also one with a good heart and lively dimensions. On his way from a second divorce (both ex's work at the local Gas-N-Go), Beagle attributes his success with women in simple terms: I got a big sign on my forehead & Blinking red lights. It says, dumb bastard! Perhaps he carries somewhat offensive qualities, too. But that only reinforces his uniqueness to the community. The historical background that Beagle provides reminds readers that every place has undergone a transformation - one that is important to understand because these images from the past are beyond the scope of the current generation's experience and imagination. Perry does not dwell too heavily in the past; he creates a foundation and then introduces the vital characters of New Auburn. The structure of Population: 485 resembles a series of small stories. Each story is a glimpse into Perry's life as a firefighter in New Auburn. One story gives readers a peek into a scene of a basement fire, while another introduces us to Emergency Medical Technician basics. Some of the best action is not the dangerous scenes of an accident, but Perry's careful explanations of and often humorous reflections on what it means to be a volunteer firefighter, especially when he is called to duty in the middle of the night or early morning hours. One enjoyable example occurs when Perry is paged to check on a possible stroke victim. As the elderly woman sits on her sofa, Perry and his brother search for signs of a stroke, such as facial drooping, slurred speech, and problems with orientation. Perry also checks to see if she has mismatched her clothes in confusion. The results are positive: the elderly woman did not suffer a stroke. But later Perry's brother makes an important suggestion: Might wanna fix that. Perry looks down to see his shirt inside out and backward. Ultimately, Population: 485 expresses the importance of community in times of sorrow. Some of the descriptions are graphic and piercing, a reminder of our own undetermined fatality. But the scale tips in favor of humor most of the time. Perhaps the only aspect missing from Perry's work is a deeper understanding of his childhood and especially his family. Perry took us close to the victims, but not close enough to his own thoughts, and beyond his role as a volunteer firefighter, until the final pages of the book.





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