Alexander Craghead, September 13, 2010
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Although the Northwest boasts three major metropolitan regions -- Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland -- it is the small town that most defines the character of the region. With sparse populations, vast agricultural regions, and a legacy of resource based economics, the town (and sometimes, failed town) dots the landscape with regularity. In the post-industrial world, many of these towns have replaced their old ways of life with tourism, and few now would ever remember that a place such as Seaside, Oregon, for example, was once a timber town instead of a taffy town. Yet for every milltown turned tourist trap, there's a half dozen that remain truer to their heritages, and it is these more authentic and less famous towns of the Northwest that Foster Church has packed into his guidebook, Discovering Main Street: Travel Adventures in Small Towns of the Northwest.
Church intends the book as a true guidebook, as with the dozens and dozens seen in the travel or regional sections of our area bookstores. Unlike many of these contemporaries, however, Church's volume aims at something more akin to authenticity. Explicit in the beginning is the admonition to treat visiting small towns differently, as the author exhorts the virtues of visiting the local Chamber of Commerce, reading the local paper, and eating breakfast in the local diner as ways to learn the local culture. A requirement of any town he has included is the provision of lodging; Church argues that a town that seems at first sleepy and passed-by will reveal itself better to a traveller the next morning.
Following a brief introduction in which the author lays out these arguments, the book is divided into five chapters, each corresponding to a specific region of the Northwest: the Willamette Valley, the Oregon Coast, Southern Oregon, Eastern Oregon, and Southern Washington. The bulk of Washington and the entirety of Idaho are excluded from the book, much less other states (or provinces) that have traditionally been described as Northwestern. This is perhaps understandable given that Church was a staff writer at the Portland Oregonian for over twenty years and is likely most familiar with Oregon towns or towns within a short drive of Portland, but the lack is noticeable and unfortunate, at a minimum bringing the choice of title into question. Within each chapter is an entry on a small town. In railroad fashion, the town name is followed by its elevation. Next comes a brief paragraph describing the road to the town; perhaps reflecting the author's interest in off-beat locations, all of the towns in the book but one (White Salmon, WA) are reachable only by road, although the presence of transit options is an unspoken likelihood. The bulk of the entry then consists of a short, generally narrative text describing a typical visit. The entry is then bookended by a single paragraph describing what Church terms "the basics" of lodging and dining. In all, 48 towns are covered. Following the entries is a brief epilogue and an index.
The author has walked a very fine line with this book. Although organized and promoted as a guidebook, Church gives us more a collection of small narratives, like a journalist encyclopedia of place. The writing is solid, verging on poetic at times with an occasional turn of phrase flashing through like agates on a sandy beach. Read as narrative, the book can almost be frustrating, as you want to read more, to learn more, and instead are given a short paragraph on where and how to visit and then rushed off to the next entry. There is something vaster here, something that Church should seriously consider, the potential for a book that is equal parts John Berendt and Stewart Holbrook. Yet, is this sense of "not quite enough" exactly the point? In some ways, by leaving the reader wanting more, the reader is also left wanting to fill in the missing pieces themselves by visiting. In that, we can almost forgive the missed opportunities of a straight prose work.
As a guidebook, however, the work is equally difficult to peg down. Church isn't going for comprehensive, but instead for the ways of visiting towns that he views as most authentic to place. In Mount Angel, for example, the bulk of the entry involves the experience of staying at the Benedictine Abbey in town. There's nothing wrong with this, except that it places the book more into the tradition of travel writing than of a guidebook. Further, there's a deeper issue revolving around the author's methodology of finding authentic rather than touristy small towns. His advice for knowing a small town partly relies on the same questionable mechanism as tourist towns do, like the visitor's center. Other staples of local place that Church advocates are the local diner's bulletin board or attending a local school sports function. There may have been a time when these suggestions would reveal a fully realized small town community, but if so it hasn't been in this reviewer's admittedly young life.
The book is a standard trade paperback guidebook, well executed and business-like with an attractive color cover. It feels fine to flip through, and will likely not begin to fall apart until many years past it becoming obsolete. With no photographs and only a few maps, there's little to complain about.
Overall, Discovering Main Street is a solid book with interesting stories and useful information for the traveller seeking something other than the usual over-advertised tourist traps. Although not a fully realized guidebook nor a true work of prose, Foster Church's writing is eloquent and occasionally beautiful in its own right, and the ways that he recommends visiting these towns are refreshing. The book will prove interesting to anyone who remembers the invaluable works of Thomas Friedman and is seeking a more contemporary offering.