A Man, a Highway, and the Road to Roughneck Grace
By Michael Perry
When we last heard from Michael Perry, he was settling into his new life as a husband, stepfather and amateur farmer. By the end of Coop (2009), Perry had finally finished the mobile chicken coop of the title, learned to outwit his resourceful pigs, and generally gotten a handle on the business of running a family farm. And then his wife gave birth to their first child.
Visiting Tom picks up two years later with Perry and his family growing ever closer to their octogenarian neighbors on the farm next door. Tom Hartwig is a character from Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon come to life, a crusty old farmer as eccentric as he is wise. He's the kind of self-taught handyman who won't just make a working replica of a 19th-century cannon, he'll build the oversize lathe needed to bore out the barrel as well.
The focus of Perry's book is not Tom's eccentricities but rather the "roughneck grace" that has enabled him to weather indignities great and small with a kind of sly stoicism. Foremost among these is the interstate highway that sliced his farm in two nearly 50 years ago. Perry admires Tom's refusal either to give up or to give in to easy bitterness, and he strives throughout the book to live up to the example set by his outwardly unremarkable neighbor.
Visiting Tom is a kind of thanksgiving, a hymn to families born and families made. It is sure to appeal to readers of Perry's previous books, though it is not necessary to have read them to enjoy this one. Lake Wobegon fans, too, will be on familiar ground in Perry's quirky Wisconsin backwater. And if you grew up among folks who never used the front door because everyone knew to come in the side door and go straight to the kitchen, well, Visiting Tom will feel like going home.
Review by Don Beistle
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