Limestone County Almanac is a beautifully honed collection of loosely related stories about the people of Mount Nebo, a farm town in southern Illinois. The four parts of the book correspond to the seasons that governed country life—planting, growing, harvesting, and hunkering down for winter. The vivid, sometimes somber, often hilarious personal stories you’ll encounter span the years of the Great Depression, World War II, and the post-war recovery, as lived in the sprawling prairie countryside.
Through the eyes of the mysterious rural postman, Denton Kamermeyerer, you will come to know a marvelous assembly of characters whose lives intertwine with secrets, joys, and the occasionally tragic costs of everyday life. The opening scene is an early foggy morning at the town’s old cemetery, where a lone figure contemplates a fresh grave—that of postman Kamermeyerer, surrounded by the headstones of the people whose lives he observed in his daily rounds.
After WWI, fleeing the “still fresh blood of memory,” the postman comes to know the simple-living, singular people of Limestone County. And ultimately, he finds his own peace among them. As he drives his daily route he jots down observations in his little notebooks… things he witnessed that “not even Faulkner could have imagined!”
“Geography is used to determine many things.
The American landscape is dotted with hundreds of small towns, a thousand or so people apiece, located at a bend in a river where a boat can be landed, where there’s a gap in the mountains or where the river is low enough to be forded. Sometimes a town grew up where two roads met, just because it was close enough that a farmer’s horse and buggy could reach it in a day.
Modern transportation has rendered all those reasons obsolete. You can reach any city in half of the country in one day in your car. Rivers and mountains are no longer obstacles. From rural Illinois you can shop the world.
So small towns in Illinois and in much of the country have been dying for about 70 years now. There’s a sad but natural progression. The businesses die. The jobs leave. The weekly newspaper folds. The school closes. Even the gas station closes. The town eventually is only a collection of bedrooms and memories.
Lynne Bevan DeMichele, a former Kankakee County resident, chronicles the small Midwest town of the past in “Limestone County Almanac,” 392 pages. Strategic Book Publishing, 2012. $21.95.
There is no real Limestone County, of course. DeMichele’s parents, now deceased, farmed in Kankakee County for many years. The book is inspired by Kankakee County and Limestone Township, but it could be any Midwestern state with any small town and any river flowing through it.
This town is Mt. Nebo, near the mythical Siwinowee River. Critical recurring characters include Denton Kamermeyerer, a bachelor postman who keeps a diary; and Harriet Baxter Murphy, the columnist for the weekly Mt. Nebo Motto. Large portions of the story are diary excerpts from Kamermeyerer and Murphy’s stories. In lesser but substantial roles are a dedicated schoolteacher carrying a torch for the postman, and the owner of the town diner, who listens to all problems.
The book is a collection of short stories. Mt. Nebo comes across as Mayberry—with a harder edge. These are delightful, wistful moments: the town pastor gets snookered into buying a useless air conditioner; a first kiss at a teen church social; and party-line phones come to town.
But polio also comes to town. The one-room schoolhouses close down. The boys head off to war. A farm wife terrified of sex lives out an unhappy life with a cheating and abusive husband. Cheapskate bachelors flip a coin to determine which one will get married.
Toward the end of the book, too, the stories get somewhat darker. There are a couple of suicides. These are not the farms of Norman Rockwell’s America. There is alcoholism and unrelenting hard work. One amazing tale covers the strength of a widow, carrying on alone, milking the cows on a cold winter’s day.
DeMichele is a master storyteller. She has a descriptive but understated style, gently leading the reader to the conclusion. DeMichele also pushes us toward a better small town world, one that accepts gay marriage and rejects sex abuse.
Typography is part of the presentation here. The newspaper stories are set to appear, headline and all, as old newspaper stories looked. Another passage appears as if written by a typewriter.
The collection is outstanding. It’s the type of book that can be put down, picked back up again and savored. For these are not fictitious characters, but real people.
I note that Harriet Paxton Murphy operates a Speed Graphic camera, which I confess I once used years ago at the Darien Review, a small Connecticut weekly. Murphy, who was the soul of the newspaper. Gets passed over for the editorship when the owner dies.
Her own passing is marked by the highest compliment. At her wake, readers pull clips of her stories covering their lives out of their purses and wallets. The newspaper passes away as she passes away.
A good book. A very good book. Sad in places. Funny in others. It’s a collection of memories, people and places that we will not see again.” – Phil Angelo, The Kankakee Daily Journal