The road trip. The Wright Brothers. What could be more American?
How about putting the two together?
Husband-and-wife team James Fallows and Deborah Fallows did just that, flying their small, single-engine propeller plane back and forth and up and down the United States over five years and 100,000 miles, a journey they document in Our Towns. When the couple set out in 2012, they expected to find problems and poverty, and they did. But as they continued to set down in a wide variety of cities, towns and backyards, they were also struck by the resilient spirits of the people.
The chronological approach to this narrative can be frustrating at first—readers may wish the authors had reported on the towns by topic or by geography, rather than traveling from South Dakota to Maine in the first year, then starting over in South Carolina the next. In the end, though, being able to make discoveries with the Fallows as they go from place to place is part of the book’s charm. On any given page, you might find yourself wandering the halls of an innovative community college in Mississippi or sharing a beer with millennials at a bar in San Bernardino, California. In between stops, the Fallows’ bird’s-eye view reveals the visual contours of the country, from street grids to agricultural feedlots to collections of backyard swimming pools.
Co-authoring a travel memoir can be tricky, but the Fallows team pulls it off like the professionals they are. James has been a national correspondent for The Atlantic for over 30 years, and Deborah is the author of Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language. In alternating sections, each writer demonstrates certain strengths—Deborah, with her eye for local color, will make you smell the potluck Easter banquet they happen on in Georgia, while James will show you around the remains of the Mack Trucks plant in Allenstown, Pennsylvania. Together, they paint a rich picture of a complex country in this finely detailed love letter to America.