One of my favorite parts of working for the Wisconsin court system was getting to visit Wisconsin’s small towns. Software updates from my office required training, so we’d drive from the capital city across rolling hills and past innumerable lakes to stay in one of the dairy state’s unique cities and towns. We spent work hours in beautiful, historic courthouses, training clerk staff and asking for recommendations on what a visitor should see in town after hours.
Lancaster, Wisconsin, has one of the nation’s first Civil War monuments. Menomonie has a hundred-year-old “haunted” theater. Rhinelander has statues of its very own folklorian Paul Bunyan monster, the Hodag. I’d stop by these charming landmarks on the way to find the best burger in town or pop into the local craft brewery. I always met interesting people, servers who could tell right away that I was from out of town, or the shy yet earnest guys at bars who mustered the courage to ask me out and continued to cheerfully chat after I gently let them down.
In Antigo, a restaurant’s bar was packed after one of the town’s business patriarchs had passed away. I watched friends and acquaintances offer support and “drinks on me” to each other across the dining room. The server asked me how I’d heard about their off-the-main-road restaurant, and I explained that a church friend, Rae, grew up in Antigo and told me to check it out. By the next Sunday, news had made it from that server, back to Rae’s mom in town, and then all the way to Rae in Madison that I had been there. Small town talk travels fast.
As a visitor, it was easy to romanticize these quaint little places during a two-day trip after which I’d return to my bustling, diverse city. But then I’d remember my mixed feelings about my own tiny Michigan hometown. I cried when I moved away at eighteen, yet at the same time was eager to find a new life where I might fit in better than I did at my high school. Folksy places have their dark side—how many Confederate flags do I drive past on my way to my mom’s rural home?
I’ve spent a lot of time since Christmas reading my husband’s gift to me: It, Stephen King’s 1400-page tour de force that introduced Pennywise the Clown into cultural consciousness. But Pennywise is only one form that the book’s monster takes. It is really about a demonic presence living beneath and within the town of Derry, Maine.
The monster called “It” murders the children of Derry, but the town remains complicit with Its terrors in exchange for Pennywise’s quiet support of their darker urges: pungent racism, violent homophobia, extrajudicial revenge. The town binds its fate to the monster, embracing Its unseen presence or, at least, looking the other way as It carries out Its violent agenda. The gang of kids who fight the monster find that they are alone in their willingness to name and oppose It.
Last August I returned to my hometown to see billowing Trump flags in the yards of people I know to be faithful Christians, who had extended profound hospitality and love to me as a kid. I visited someone from my home church and saw that their car had a “TRUMP: My Faith Votes!” bumper sticker. I felt so angry. I wanted to scrape it off with a razor blade, or carve “Grab ‘em by the pussy” over the words, vandalize it like Trump vandalized the American church and the witness of Christianity in this nation. Trump isn’t the cause of the rot in the evangelical church, but his overwhelming support from Christians sure made the church’s defects more visible than they’d ever been.
Signs were everywhere for Trump, a man I believe to be profoundly, demonstrably narcissistic and evil. Whose “pro-life” administration carried out more federal executions this year than all 50 states combined. Returning to my beloved town, I despaired over American conservatives’ and the white church’s deal with the devil: Trump appoints anti-abortion judges and we’ll look the other way while he jails and separates immigrant children, pardons his criminally indicted cronies and war criminals, pretends that pandemic statistics doesn’t count if it’s his detractors dying, violently disperses peaceful protesters in order to pose with the Word of God as a political prop, and tells violent insurrectionists that they’re special.
My town, whose streets I ran daily for cross country practice, on every block passing the home of someone I knew I could come to for help if I needed it. My town, where some residents held up “Keep us pure MI” signs in protest of a potential housing program for undocumented refugee teens. My little home church, whose politics crushed my pastor father’s spirit, and whose church ladies delivered us a hundred casseroles after his death. I love Vassar. I dearly love the people there who celebrated with me during a parking lot bridal shower last summer. I respect my friends who chose to stay. But in some ways, it pained me to return.
Stephen King’s It was a pointed critique at insular small-town corruption, yet a celebration of the friendship one finds in such a place. It’s strange how I sometimes feel nostalgic for where I grew up when I was so isolated and depressed while I actually lived there. Still, I’ll always have fondness for small towns, happily participating in the “how many traffic lights did your hometown have?” discussion with people I meet. Small towns are America, as much as the bigger cities I escaped to after high school graduation. All of the toxic politics and shocking events that have happened here this year are America too.
Home isn’t always an easy place to love.
Laura graduated from Calvin in 2015 with a degree in art and writing. She lives in Toronto, Ontario, with her husband Josh and dog Rainy. She works as an IT support analyst and enjoys painting, rock climbing, and exploring the city.