David Lamb is a superb journalist who has roved America, particularly that segment of it which he calls “the Empty Quarter,” to talk to typical people. The resulting nineteen essays depict Americans not often heard from: the restaurant owner in Bethel on Alaska’s west coast; the paper mill foreman in Rumford, Maine; the Floridian who supplies the mud rubbed on all major league baseballs. These are resourceful people who in various ways continue the American pioneer tradition. Appropriately, the first essay in the book details Lamb’s retracing, as closely as present day highways permit, the route of Lewis and Clark’s expedition to the Pacific.
Like those explorers of the Jeffersonian era, Lamb’s subjects manifest courage, endurance, and indomitable spirit. He admits feeling at ease with ordinary Americans from lightly populated areas; it is also clear that he respects and admires them. Often such people are considered provincial, but Lamb shows that someone like himself, born in Boston, well-educated, and working out of Los Angeles, can be more provincial. For instance, he could not understand why a Montana rancher would not answer the seemingly simple question of how many head of cattle he owned until the rancher pointed out that such an inquiry was like his coming into Lamb’s home and asking him how much money he had in his bank account: a humbling but educational lesson for Lamb and, one suspects, his readers also.
Most of the people in A SENSE OF PLACE have to struggle hard for a living, but they are people for whom a rich life is one spent doing what they love to do. This book counteracts the impression, so easy to gain today, that America is merely a nation of harried and unhappy materialists.