Big-City Protagonist Finds New Beginning In Small Town

Feb 21, 2017

"You can take the girl out of the city, but you can't take the city out of the girl."

We've all heard this, which is why it's refreshing to find a story that shows the opposite.

Rachel Raines is the protagonist of Small Town Roads by L.B. Johnson, one of our Read With Me selections for this month.

Rachel graduated with a criminal science degree in Chicago and is ready for police work. But a recent break-up, plus lingering heartbreak over her dead parents, causes her to re-evaluate everything -- including the city she calls home.

There's also the prospect of joining the CPD and patrolling dangerous neighborhoods, which would be risky for even the most experienced cops.

Is Chicago, with its museums, parties and restaurants, worth it?

The sudden passing of her Aunt Ruby -- and the inheritance of her home in a rural village -- provides the answer. Clean air beckons, plus quieter streets and a calmer police beat. The drawbacks? No baristas. No nightlife. And just one restaurant with a plastic cow on the roof.

But the local police department hires her, so at least her career is off to a start.

Rachel moves, alone, into the empty home and immediately starts an online diary. After a few introductory paragraphs, she recounts how Aunt Ruby took her in after both of her parents died. This was the summer before Rachel left for college. The home left an impression:

Her small house stood on an even smaller lot, among a cluster of homes that went up when World War I ended and so many young men came home to settle down. There were dozens just like it, neat and ordered, awaiting those who survived to light their rooms with freedom. The house stood there, a hundred years later, as around it, other homes popped up in open fields after the next Great War. It is surrounded by a variety of older homes; some farmhouse style and some bungalows, painted a variety of colors—a stark difference from the bland homeowner-association-approved blues and grays that loomed like Easter Island statues in the modern subdivision where I grew up ...

Friends had urged Aunt Ruby to sell her house when my uncle passed away years ago. Because of its location, in a small rural farm town, the tiny spot of land wasn’t worth much money, and she didn’t want to leave it anyway.

Change your life, they say. Get out from under your house and get a condo; forget your garden and your flowers and you’ll have more freedom and money. The change would be good.

My aunt would have no part of it, and for that I was grateful.

Soon after, Rachel becomes re-acquainted with her neighbor, a retired teacher named Evelyn Ahlgren who was Ruby's best friend. Evelyn is a widow without children.

L.B. Johnson, author of Small Town Roads

"When her husband died, she really found herself with no role in the community," Johnson says of Evelyn. "She was caring toward her neighbors but was kind of adrift, looking for something to give her life some meaning."

Evelyn met Rachel during her previous stay there and knew about the loss of her parents, and her brother before that. When Rachel returns as the new owner, Evelyn realizes she has no one and could use a friend. For her part, Rachel is grateful to have a neighbor so warm and welcoming. Later in the story, Rachel will lean on this friendship after she's involved in a crisis while on duty -- an event Johnson includes as a reminder for her protagonist, and the reader.

"Crime and human nature don't change whether you live in a big or small town," she says. "You have to be aware, and Rachel found out very abruptly that just because she lived in this little town didn't mean that the outside world couldn't affect her or hurt her."

In the hospital, Evelyn tells the recovering Rachel that she'll make a homemade salve for her injuries.

Rachel responds with a laugh, "Mom, quit fussing over me."

"Mom? Do you have a head injury too?" But Evelyn smiles.

Rachel smiles back at her, preparing to speak. "Yes, if it's OK, you can be my unofficial mom from now on if you don't think that's disrespectful to my mom's memory."

"Although their ages were vastly different, they found they had some real key values in common," Johnson says. These include faith and freedom -- values the author associates with small towns.

Faith in God is a recurring theme in this book. Johnson, whose two previous books are Amazon best-sellers, has a large Christian readership. But, in an interview with WNIJ, she said she welcomes all readers with a "non-specific" message of hope:

"No matter how bad things get, there is a higher power that we can lean on," she says. "We may not share the same specific religion, we may not share the same politics, but we're still a community of human beings that should look out for one another."

L.B. Johnson lives near Chicago and has a job in federal service.

Our "Read with Me" series continues Wednesday with Dirt, Root, Silk, the latest collection of poems by Susan Azar Porterfield. Listen during Morning Edition, after Perspectives, at 6:52 and 8:52. Then come back here for an author reading and other information.

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