Visiting Tom: A Man, a Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace
Harper, 2012 (2012)
Read an Excerpt
Reviewed by Carrol Wolverton
f you like Garrison Keillor and
Prairie Home Companion
ilk writing, you will like Michael Perry. Tom is a neighboring farmer in Southern Wisconsin and an octogenarian. Their area is outside Eau Claire.
om's claim to fame is his long fight with the government over the I-94 interstate that runs adjacent to his barn and land locks part of his farm. Tom and Arlene lived most of their married lives rattled nonstop by tanker trucks, semi trailers, and the constant plunk, plunk of cars shooting past. In the night it's mostly the trucks whooshing. Tom's '
leather pecan skin
' mirrors his story of hard farm work right next to a major and very disinterested highway. The exceptions are the periodic breakdowns and at least one fatal accident.
hey fought the state; they lost. They always lose, per Tom and Perry. They do, however, exact minor revenge and stir irritation against the
. Along the way, Tom spins and respins great tales of farm lore and reflects an older order and older ways. He is the picture of self-sufficiency. If he needs it, he makes it and seems to favor old Buick parts. He owns several obsolete tractors. One always runs. When several run, he positions them at different jobs. That way he does not have to hook and unhook equipment as he moves from one farm operation to another. If something needs welding or lathing, Tom does it for himself and the neighbors. A welding project for Perry falls off a '73 Buick tire jack. No problem, he digs out a bigger, hydraulic jack.
here are tales of Ginger the talking Crow, and of parents and grandparents. Perry is the main one nostalgic during the controlled burn of his grandparents' stately farmhouse. Per Perry's descriptions, there remain pulverized pastures, obliterated pines, and dozered clover populating our asphalt lives.
he world ever encroaches, and there isn't much we can do about it. He does win small victories against the system, such as with the widening of the access berm approaching his property. As with Tom, it is our job to adjust. Perry tells us that we always take the new way despite any lingering longing for the past. It's shorter and faster that way.
hough not raised on a farm, I grew up in Southern Wisconsin and can relate. I once climbed a highway fence and waded through several feet of snow to get help when my '63 Chevy wagon died on I-94. My 3-month old son remained behind in the locked car. I moved fast and pleaded hard to one of Tom's brethren. Help came. These were invariably good people, and I enjoyed reading about their perspective.
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