Saturday, October 24, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Those Who Stayed Behind. Rural Society in Nineteenth-Century New England by Hal S. Barron

In keeping with my attempt to read diverse nonfiction for the 2015 challenge, I picked a work of nineteenth century social history from rural Vermont, a book first published in 1984: Those Who Stayed Behind. Rural Society in Nineteenth-Century New England by Hal S. Barron.

This is a study of how social, political, and economic forces effected changes on a small Vermont agricultural community, Chelsea. It reflects similar changes throughout rural New England. As Barron states in his preface:

The majority of people in nineteenth-century America lived in rural communities, but most of the social history of nineteenth century American is not about them. This book is. Instead of following the long-standing emphasis on the frontier, however, I have written about those who stayed behind in settled rural areas.

I admit, when I think of farmers in that time period, I tend to think of pioneers, westward expansion, the bold and adventurous people who struck out to settle new lands. I have a Little House on the Prairie view. I’m guilty of forgetting about those who stayed behind.

Barron challenges the more conventional view that everything interesting was going on along the frontier, and that older rural communities suffered nothing but decline as the population decreased, the farmland grew exhausted, and economic opportunity dried up. Instead, he paints a picture of stabilization and homogenization. The people bemoaning the downfall of rural New England communities were not the people living there, but outsiders looking in. Rather than looking to "get rich quick" or even not so quick, the settled rural population was looking for contentment. And the people who stayed were the people who had, for the most part, found it.

This is a short book at 135 pages plus notes. It’s academic and a bit dry, but nevertheless easy to read. He makes a good argument. Although I went into the book hoping for more day-to-day details of rural life, I ended up very pleased with this bigger picture synthesis. If you’re curious about life in old New England towns, this is an interesting read.