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Far from Home

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Ron Powers, former television on-air columnist for “CBS Sunday Morning,” winner of a 1973 Pulitzer Prize for criticism, continues in FAR FROM HOME an interest in small-town America revealed earlier in his WHITE TOWN DROWSING. In FAR FROM HOME, Powers examines analytically and in elegant prose the decline of Cairo, Illinois, downriver from his native Hannibal, Missouri, after race riots in the 1960’s led to a wrenching industrial retrenchment and of Kent, Connecticut, whose bucolic way of life fell victim to the inroads real estate developers and weekend refugees from Manhattan made on it.

In examining two towns, one a town in the Midwest bordered by the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, the other a quiet haven in southern New England, Powers makes trenchant statements about the quality of life in the United States and about the implications all U.S. citizens might draw from the disintegration of their nation’s small towns. The move from an agricultural/industrial economy to one concerned largely with information has resulted in the growth of twelve large population centers across the United States that, by the year 2000, will contain seventy percent of the country’s population.

Although one of the two towns Powers examines has been destroyed by poverty, the other by an encroaching affluence, the outcomes are similar: Both towns have ceased to exist as they were. Kent is no longer Kent, Cairo no longer Cairo. Both towns are victims, cruelly raped by socioeconomic changes beyond their control.

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal. CXVI, April 15, 1991, p. 114.

The Nation. CCLIII, October 14, 1991, p. 454.

Publishers Weekly. CCLVIII, April 12, 1991, p. 50.

Far from Home

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 2,053 words.)