When Entertainment Weekly senior editor Karen Valby was assigned to find a place in America untouched by popular culture, she landed in Utopia, a tiny and isolated farming town in Texas. The biggest event of the year for residents of Utopia (pop. 1,000) is the Fall Festival parade, when carefully decorated floats drive down Main Street, then make a U-turn and drive back down the other way.
But things are changing fast, even in this town where the retired “coffee drinkers” still gather every morning at the general store to provide slightly off-color running commentary on all the happenings in town. Families who have lived there for generations are moving away or dying out, and newcomers are bringing foreign values and cultures into the community. The young adults of this sometimes bleak town—who, through blogs and social media, have a glimpse of the bigger world that many of their parents never had—yearn for something more. “I just wish something would ever happen in this town,” says high school senior Kelli, the only African-American girl in her class and a promising student who plans to move to Austin as soon as she graduates. “I just feel like I’m pushing through a hot fog.”
Valby’s rich portrait of several local residents is incredibly appealing for its honest look at the struggles of modern families in small-town America. There’s Kathy, the loud, profane mother of four rambunctious boys, who talks about what it’s like to have three sons serve in Iraq and only two come home. There’s 22-year-old Colter, an outcast who works on a local road construction crew while he figures out how to avoid becoming a sun-baked rancher like his father.
But it’s Ralph, one of the coffee drinkers, who is the true heart and wisdom of Welcome to Utopia. Former owner of the general store, he is a gruff, good-hearted man who speaks his mind. One wishes Valby could have devoted even more pages to his less-than-politically-correct, but razor-sharp perspective: “ ‘People always say nothing changes. . . . Everything changes. You just don’t always know it when it’s happening.’ ”