The Book Report

“Visiting Tom” captures essence of rural Midwest

More stories from Erica Jones

DIY diaries
May 9, 2018

Nonfiction usually isn’t my thing. I tend to go for books that evoke an emotional response (i.e. tear-jerking, laughter-inducing novels). Imagine my surprise when I found a nonfiction work that could do just that.

“Visiting Tom: A Man, A Highway and the Road to Roughneck Grace,” a book by Eau Claire area native, Michael Perry, is a biography of sorts, exposing readers to an old man named Tom, who has a personal impact on Perry’s life.

Tom Hartwig is gruff, good with his hands and extremely mobile and capable for an 82-year-old living on a farm. He shows Perry the machinery he’s created himself or adapted from existing pieces he’s had, demonstrating both his innovation and his competence.

A major theme of the book is the highway that cuts through Hartwig’s property, causing him and his wife to grumble about since its introduction. Although they’ve had decades to get used to it, it’s something they talk about for old time’s sake, even bringing Perry into the conversation. Perry has to deal with his own infrastructural challenges, arguing with the local government about a change in the shape of a road that leads to his house.

Throughout the book, Perry details conversations he’s had with Hartwig over the years, from which he’s gained knowledge, practical advice and a sense of camaraderie.

They’ve discussed life, love, tools and more, sometimes explicitly but sometimes buried in metaphor or the retelling of an old story. It’s clear the author admires Hartwig and has learned much from him over the time they’ve known each other.

Perry makes nonfiction easy to swallow, mixing cute anecdotes with lessons learned. He weaves a story for readers, ensuring it feels like more like a journey than a dry recollection of events.

On my way through the book, I felt like I was right in Hartwig’s kitchen, listening to spirited conversation flowing from one family to another. I think others will have this experience too, enjoying every minute.

Perry uses strong visual language, carefully pointing out important details to place readers in the scene. He has a knack for describing characters to the point that readers feel like they know them, or at least someone just like them. If neither, they become someone the readers want to know.

Perry perfectly encapsulates what it’s like to live in the rural Midwest, capturing the spirit of one man who’s been around for a long time. He learns and grows in this environment, as a father, a neighbor and as a Wisconsin citizen.

The one thing that makes the story a more difficult read is Perry’s wide-ranging vocabulary, which required me to look up unfamiliar words every now and then. I have no complaints about that; I’d rather be challenged by new words than bored with too-easy material.

Goodreads gives “Visiting Tom” 4.1 out of 5 stars and Amazon gives it a 4.6. I’d rate it around a 4.0. It was my welcome to the world of nonfiction, so I’m not yet ready to give it anything higher, considering I can’t compare it to other books of this nature.

All I know is I’ll definitely be back to read more of Perry’s work. It excites me that he’s local to the area, and this book impressed me like I thought no nonfiction could.