Northern Wisconsin has a low tolerance for fragility, both of structure and spirit. In a region characterized by dense forests and cruel winters, it should come as no surprise that the locals are as tough and eccentric as the environment in which they grew. New Auburn, Wisconsin is no exception. In his 2001 bestselling memoir, “Population: 485- Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time,” Michael Perry catalogs the quirks of this tiny, northern village while reminiscing on his time spent serving on its volunteer fire department. Perry was raised on a farm in New Auburn, and his roots are evident from the beginning. He describes his hometown much in the same way that one would refer to a wacky family member — with the utmost love and affection, but also with a complete awareness of its faults.
As the title suggests, serving as a volunteer firefighter gives Perry a multitude of opportunities to meet his fellow New Auburners, whether he is administering CPR to someone afflicted by a heart attack, sweeping up glass from a car accident or, yes, fighting fires.
Perry’s experiences run the gamut of human emotion. His anecdotes are often unapologetically multifaceted, dealing with equal doses of humor and heartbreak — not only in the same chapter but even in the same paragraph. Overall, his greatest talent as a writer could easily be his keen sense of balance. When characters or tales verge on corniness, he deftly manipulates them into something original.
Each chapter works as a kind of mini-essay, possessing a distinct theme or moral lesson. Throughout the book, though, is a unifying undercurrent: the power of service and the importance of contributing to one’s community. Again, it speaks to Perry’s knack for craftsmanship that he manages to preach this message without straying into condescension.
In “Population: 485,” service is not glorified. The author speaks of his experiences with humility, coupling grotesque realities with humor and generosity. His tendency for self-deprecation eliminates any resulting arrogance that could arise from frequently saving the homes and lives of his neighbors.
Perry currently resides near my hometown of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He has a long and diverse list of publications over the course of his writing career and has spent time on the New York Times bestsellers list. As a book-obsessed youngster, I was aware of his status as a local literary legend and had often seen his works on bookstore shelves. That being said, I am ashamed to admit that “Population: 485” was my first experience reading one of his novels.
Upon finishing this book, my only regret was that I didn’t read it sooner. Structurally, the
chapters at times seem to lack connection, and its sudden descent into personal
tragedy in the final 20 pages brings it to an abrupt, albeit hopeful end. However, this
memoir didn’t need seamless plot transitions to be impactful. It possesses a power much
greater — the ability to make you laugh, cry and often perform a combination of the two simultaneously.
If you want to read a glorified hero’s somber account of bravery in trying times, don’t read this book. But, if you’re looking to encounter an homage to serving one’s community, with healthy doses of quirky neighbors, wrenching losses and heaven-bound geese, then Michael Perry’s “Population: 485” should be more than sufficient.
Overall Grade: A