Cairo (pronounced “Kayrow”) is located on a small wedge of land at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers; Kentucky lies to its east, Missouri to its west. Despite Illinois’ allegiance to the Union during the Civil War, Cairo is as Deep South as many small towns in Alabama or Mississippi.
Cairo was a dangerous place from the time of its birth in 1818, when virulent diseases crept out of moist lowlands around it, lands that Charles Dickens, who passed by on a trip down the Mississippi, called “a breeding place of fever, ague, and death.” Typhoid and cholera claimed the lives of countless early citizens, as the older cemeteries around the town attest. Political corruption and the repression of black citizens were virulent diseases of a different sort. They also exacted a terrible toll in the town, which was socially dysfunctional almost from its inception.
Twelve hundred miles to Cairo’s northeast is Kent, Connecticut, an affluent village close enough to Manhattan to be a favorite weekend haunt of city-dwellers in quest of the bucolic. Once a sleepy hamlet, Kent has become a trendy retreat for rich New Yorkers; the influx has permitted some of Kent’s older citizens to sell their $20,000 houses for ten times the original purchase price, their acreage at such outrageous prices that it boggles local minds.
Kent has exchanged the simple for the sophisticated, a comfortable, natural rustication for the calculated, quietly elegant rustication of corporate executives and professionals, weekenders who flee the city as early as they can on Fridays and return there as late as they can on Sunday nights. If Cairo is economically anemic, Kent’s blood is so rich it is goutish.
A common thread that unites these two disparate towns is Ron Powers, a Pulitzer Prize winner who wrote White Town Drowsing (1986) and a former on-air columnist for the CBS Morning News. Powers was born north of Cairo in Hannibal, Missouri, a Mississippi River town immortalized by Mark Twain. Moving east to launch his career, Powers became a New Yorker. When success came, he bought his chunk of heaven-on- earth, a spread in Kent, Connecticut, where he spent his weekends.
As Powers mused on the plight of Cairo, Illinois, a plight worsened by racial tensions and riots in the 1960’s, he came to see the town as emblematic of something that was seriously wrong with his society. That something was pushing an ever-troubled town toward certain disaster.
At his home base, surprisingly, Powers was also witnessing (and participating in) the destruction of a relaxed way of life in rural Connecticut. People such as Powers were making inroads on a sleepy hamlet whose sleepiness had attracted him and thousands of others, people who became unwitting agents in the destruction of the very atmosphere that had drawn them to Kent in the first place.
It is out of these two forces that Far from Home: Life and Loss in Two American Towns grew. On a metaphoric level, the book is about the haves and the have-nots, but the opposites that these polarities suggest are not wholly antipodal. Many of the problems that afflict the towns are common to both.
The organization of the book is such that the stories of the two towns are intertwined. Powers does not devote the first half of the book to Cairo and the second half to Kent. Rather, he has a chapter or two on one town, then a chapter or two on the other, sometimes a chapter on both towns. This arrangement enhances the contrasts that are inherent in his book.
The Cairo chapters focus on Doc Poston, a retired professor of community development from Southern Illinois University (SIU) in nearby Carbondale. The tenuous field of community development is an outgrowth of funding made available half a century ago by the Rockefeller Foundation. When an ambitious new president of SIU deemed it politic to revive the field of community development, he urged Poston to come out of retirement and provide leadership. Poston agreed, with the caveat that he be permitted to work with one troubled town, nearby Cairo.
Cairo, a town in total disrepair, had never been a promising community. Blacks had been lynched there; a black prisoner as late as the 1960’s had died under questionable circumstances—officially designated suicide—in his cell and was...