Whether you’re talking about the “flyover states” of the Midwest or my own home in the Deep South, the prevailing view is rural America is that of a single, monolithic, homogenized culture. This is, however, simply not the case. Rustic working-class America is surprisingly diverse, and I was thrilled to see that author Ali Benjamin represented this breadth in Mitchell, VT, the quiet New England town featured in her recent novel, The Next Great Paulie Fink.
Protagonist Caitlyn Breen is noticeably resistant to her mother’s plans to relocate to “the middle of absolutely nowhere,” but, shuddered factories and ornery goats aside, the struggling town of Mitchell is far from just some stereotypical country hamlet. Nowhere is its diversity better displayed than in her own meager seventh-grade class of 11 strong, striking, and distinct characters.
The reality TV-obsessed Gabby is the daughter of a Congolese refugee, while the class’s resident jock, Diego Silva, not-so-coincidentally shares the name of a Uruguayan soccer player (not to mention a pair of Brazilian footballers). Then there are Lydia, Willow, and Sam, an eclectic trio of fantasy roleplayers.
Not only are Willow and Sam’s mothers described as having been “together since we were all in first grade,” but Sam is introduced as “a kid who could be either a boy or a girl, lean and wiry, with hair buzzed practically to stubble.” To the author’s credit, Sam is never explicitly referred to using pronouns, leaving it up to the reader to decide whether Sam is a he, she, or they. What Sam is, however, is respected and valued by the Mitchell School community.
Even the quick-to-judge Caitlyn comes from a less than traditional background. Her mother “decided that she wanted a kid even if she didn’t have a partner.” This is never an issue in their new home in small-town Vermont where, saddled with financial woes and a shrinking population, an unlikely community with an equally unlikely school pulls together despite their perceived differences. Many cultures and family styles are featured, making it that much easier for young readers to see themselves represented on the page.