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Let Us Build Us a City:
Let Us Build Us a City is a group portrait of 11 "lost towns" in Donald Harington's native Arkansas. Yet this is no mere backwoods travelogue. His book, the author tells us, is "the story of communities that aspired to dignity and achieved serenity." These are towns, in other words, whose ambitious founders never quite managed to merge imagination with reality. "How does a once-flourishing town aspiring to call itself 'City' endure the long days of its decline?" asks Harington. The answer, in most cases, is quite well--though not perhaps in the way its inhabitants intended. One need not be familiar with Arkansas to appreciate this tour of lonely highways; there are lost towns everywhere. But seldom are they explored with such joy and wonder as in this gem of a book.
For all its brilliance, Let Us Build Us a City is nearly impossible to classify. It fuses the travel narrative with history and cultural studies--yet it reads like a novel. It's also a love story that is in no way fictional. Harington begins with a letter from a woman named Kim, who writes to praise his earlier book, Some Other Place, the Right Place. (Since the latter work is itself about a young couple's exploration of ghost towns and their subsequent romance, things immediately get off to a metafictional start.) Kim's letter leads to regular correspondence, in which she details the research she's conducting in one-horse towns throughout Arkansas. The author encourages her, she inspires him, and they agree to collaborate on a book--this one. By the time they meet, they too have learned something of expectation and hope. (Yes, they do get married, although you'll have to read the acknowledgments for details of the ceremony.)
Ultimately, Harington's book is a search for the spirit of each individual place--which is to say, the people. These lost towns are populated by dreamers, outcasts, prevaricators, drunks, madmen, and hermits. There are tales of floods, fires, gold rushes, gunshots, feuds, booms and (mostly) busts, along with other tidbits so strange they could only be true. By themselves, these would be deeply entertaining yarns. In Harington's hands, however, they amount to eloquent requiems for all his stunted cities. And perhaps these Arkansans traded in their dashed dreams for something better. After all, serenity is an admirable quality in a town, even if it happens to be an accidental one. --Shawn Carkonen [via]