The title Empire Falls might lead some readers to expect a story about the demise of a big city crime syndicate but Richard Russo’s novel, the one about a small mill town in Maine that has fallen on hard times, is anything but noir fiction. Empire Falls was chosen as this year’s Door County Reads selection in part for the same reason that Russo’s 2001 novel won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize – the book’s treatment of social issues concerning people at the time, problems equally relevant today.
Door County Reads, now in its 10th year, chooses a book, provides 500 complimentary copies for local readers, and then sponsors a series of related activities, all at no cost to participants. The events run from Jan. 23 to Feb. 9.
Door County Library Interim Director Laura Kayacan pointed out that Russo celebrates the “blue collar everyman” who is caught up in the changing nature of manufacturing, the automation, outsourcing, and relocation of plants to foreign countries, leaving behind laid-off workers with shrinking property values and no job opportunities.
And another contemporary issue that figures into the plot, Kayacan added, is the troubling phenomenon of school bullying.
As the novel begins, the “empire” has already fallen, as the mills have closed and the owner now controls much of the business property in town. The book, however, is not a story of doom, but rather one of survival. Miles Roby, the protagonist, had come home from college when his mother was dying and then stayed to manage a small diner, the Empire Grill, which serves as the social hub of the town. Roby is a flawed but charismatic character. He deals with a wife who is divorcing him, a daughter who struggles socially, a marginal business, and a deadbeat father, and emerges a good man.
One of the book’s strengths lies in the depiction of small town life. Russo writes about what he knows and as the plot develops, those of us with small-town experience find ourselves in familiar territory. And while small towns are often criticized for their provincialism, at the same time they are praised for their core values. The plot draws a reader into the interrelated stories involving a large cast of characters. Once the reader begins to feel a part of the community, a crisis situation develops and the book becomes a page-turner speeding toward a resolution that ultimately reaffirms faith in humanity.
Sturgeon Bay youth services librarian Beth Lokken explained that one of the criteria for book selection involved paperback availability. She noted that while the 500 complimentary copies already have been distributed, local libraries may have copies in their collection available for check-out and some readers may be willing to share copies.
Another criteria in the book choice involves related media, including films. Empire Falls was adapted by Russo for a television mini-series in 2005, receiving a Golden Globe in 2006 for Best Miniseries Made for Television.
This year’s Door County Reads program will offer book discussions at different locations in the county and a presentation of the film followed by a discussion. In addition, related activities will include a writing workshop, readings of related works, a speaker on school bullying, and a panel discussion.
Two unique events include a Peninsula Players reading of Michael Perry’s popular book Population 485, and a panel of local restaurant celebrities discussing food (with free samples).
For more information on the schedule of events, visit doorcountyreads.org or call 920.743.6578.
Empire Falls by Richard Russo / Knopf, 2001.
Door County Reads Kick-Off Celebration
Monday, Jan. 23
Door Community Auditorium, 3926 Hwy. 42 in Fish Creek
Door County Reads 2017 will kick off Monday in Fish Creek with a celebration at Door Community Auditorium. Enjoy music from local performers Katie Dahl and Rich Higdon, trivia questions, pizza from Wild Tomato, and a presentation of Empire Falls musings by Bret Bicoy, president and CEO of the Door County Community Foundation.
For a full schedule of Door County Reads events, visit DoorCountyReads.org.