Sunday, October 26, 2008

Heartwarming Tale of the Heartland

Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron and Brett Witter is part memoir, part history lesson, and part tearjerker. But it's all heart. I wasn't sure what to expect from this, a biography of a cat-turned-library-mascot-turned-international-symbol, but it wasn't the rich, complex story I found. I expected heartwarming reminiscences, sure, and those are present in abundance. Myron weaves together three storylines: the farm crisis of the 1980s and deaths of small midwestern towns, her own personal memoir, and the story of Dewey, a little kitten stuffed into the Spencer, Iowa library's book return slot on the coldest night of the year. Dewey anchors the other two stories, giving them both needed anchoring and a focused perspective. As the story begins, Spencer, Iowa is facing the fate of similar small towns across the Midwest: when the biggest employer pulls out of town at the time the farm crisis has multigenerational farm families selling up or declaring bankruptcy, the writing is on the wall. But Spencer, like the tiny frozen kitten, fights to survive. Dewey becomes a symbol for Spencer, first increasing library attendance by people in hard times who need something good in their lives (and he's a perfect library cat, always seeking the affection of those who need him most), then gaining regional, national, and even international fame.

VIcki's story is a tough one to read: divorced from an alcoholic husband, with a small child to support, with health problems that will have you shaking your fist in the general direction of the idiot doctors who made her conditions worse, eventually trying to communicate with a combative teenager. But she's not whiny or self-indulgent. In fact, the whole book has the air of midwestern values: plainspoken, making the best of what you have. She garners sympathy without drama, and I'm glad she had Dewey to support her through her ordeals. Watching her grow in confidence as she finishes her education, relates to her daughter, stands up for Dewey (when the board suggests retiring Dewey when he's no longer young and cute, I wanted to catch a flight out there and smack them) is inspirational. She takes what she has and makes it better where possible.

The mini-history of Spencer (and through it, the whole region) was fascinating. The farm crisis is brought to vivid life, and the way small towns change to survive (some welcoming endless strip malls or undesirable industry, others struggling to maintain the small-town way of life) is illustrated well. The library, under Vicki's direction and with Dewey's help, becomes a strong community center: a place where the downtrodden can look for jobs, acquire new skills, and just enjoy a few minutes of unconditional love. Vicki doesn't overstate Dewey's influence; in fact, when an interviewer asks her for the "deeper meaning" of Dewey, she refuses to give an answer. But the entire book illustrates Dewey's impact on Vicki, on the town of Spencer, and on the psyches of those who cling to his story of hope, loyalty, and survival. A beautiful read.

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