EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 7, 2012

Roughneck grace is the destination

By Joel Barrett jbarrett@eagletribune.com
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — There’s a place in the newsroom where recent releases no one wants to read are piled up for all-takers.

It was from that pile that Tom Hartwig beckoned to me.

“Visiting Tom” by Michael Perry, (HarperCollins, New York, $24.99) is the story of neighbors, of farming, of making do, of rust, pain and joy in the simpler ways.

It’s a story for everyman.

Obviously, in world that values shiny new SUVs and sports cars over rickety old trucks, rutted dirt roads and hobbled-together combines, this isn’t going to be an easy sell. Modern readers often want flashy escapism, suspense and mindless entertainment to occupy time next to the sparkling pool or while rocketing across the sky in an aluminum-alloy cylinders at the speed of sound.

If they look closely at “fly over country,” they’ll see the remnants of what once was America’s real greatest generation, the self-made man, the farmer. They might catch a glimpse of the Tom Hartwigs of the world if they look close enough.

Perry’s real-life protagonist is part of a dying breed, the self-sufficient farmers of the past. His story is woven into the very fabric of America, the folks who cleared the land, who made this nation the breadbasket of the world. In rural Wisconsin, Hartwig has lived in the same house on the same farm his whole life. Now in his 80s, he’s still going strong, if not a bit slower. Hartwig is the neighbor who can fix virtually anything, a tinkerer, an innovator, a dirt-farm philosopher. We have much to learn from the likes of Tom Hartwig.

Without the Tom Hartwigs of this world, there’d be no milk in the fridge, no honey in the cupboard, no grain in the factory produced bread and no “outside the box” thinking. It’s a valuable exercise to explore our shared agricultural roots, and in “Visiting Tom,” it’s obvious those roots grow very deep.

“Visiting Tom” is the complete package for this reader, who still takes pleasure in prairie grass, the smell of fresh cut hay, in the miracle of fresh eggs.

Perry’s writings is organic in nature, rural without being too simplistic. His humor is light in a country kind of way but leaves an impact on the reader’s soul. In this book, Perry’s offers a hay-wagon of tears, gut laughs, silent chuckles, and the enlightenment of what Midwestern sensibility is all about.

And although “Visiting Tom” centers around the invasion of an interstate highway through his family’s treasured farm, Perry uses the fight, the inconveniences, the heartache of bureaucratic baloney to bring the reader into intimate contact with Tom, his wife Arlene, and their fleeting way of life. Through Perry’s writing and Hartwig’s own stories we are blessed with close-up examples of country logic and the beauty of farm living.

And, a storyteller Hartwig is as he spins yarn after yarn throughout the book about government, commerce, neighbors, deadbeats and making do with what your given. Nothing outrageous, but all very real.

Thanks to the Eisenhower administration and the push for interstate commerce, the highway that invaded Hartwig’s farm is but a few feet from his barn and silo. Hartwig fought it the best he could, but in the end surrendered and learned to live with the stream of thousands of cars an hour streaming by all times of the day and night. Perry had me when he wrote about the pompous ribbon-cutting, the politicians lining up to take credit for the project and the first accident that happened just minute after the red, white and blue bunting had come down.

That’s progress. Build a new road and accidents happens. That’s America.

Perry plays the role of student, wanting to learn all he can from the elder statesman of the fields before it’s too late. Whether he wants to admit it or not, he is a Tom Hartwig in-training. And the readers share some of his hard-learned lessons.

As a side trip, Perry, a recreational pig farmer, humorist and singer-songwriter, also invites the reader into his family life, his precarious perch on the middle ground between the “old ways” and modern life.

He writes poignantly about his family, his relationship with his wife, his parents, brothers, and his children. And the land and the people who populate “fly over country.” Like Hartwig, Perry has many lessons to share with us.

It’s not incidental that the subtitle of this story is “A man, a highway and the road to roughneck grace.”

That’s exactly what this book and Tom Hartwig’s story represent — the journey to roughneck grace.