As the lives on our planet grow ever more connected in terms of economy, ecology, and lifestyle, our ties to family and the community in which we live can be weakened. Our sense of self and place as defined by the people and land surrounding us can fade, too -- perhaps affording us a certain type of freedom but leaving us rootless, without a clear notion of who we are. Such notions of oneness, many of them African in origin, like "I am because we are; and since we are, therefore I am,” are timeless reminders of the importance of the people we live with every day.
From suburban sprawls to knitting crawls, all communities need a binding force to hold them together. Some are bound by strict rules for membership, others simply by the virtue of proximity. In rarer cases, groups of outsiders can band together to form their own, new collective. The stories of life inside these varied, tight-knit bands of people make for eye-opening reading for the rest of us: "Gypsy Boy," Mikey Walsh’s tale of his Gypsy family, for instance, was a surprise bestseller in Great Britain. Released in paperback this month, it brings to mind three more memorable tales of entering and emerging from tight-knit communities: a bookstore that draws together a small town, life among the Iowan Amish, and one girl’s return to her prairie hometown in North Dakota.
"Gypsy Boy" by Mikey Walsh
Romany Gypsy were driven from their native India centuries ago, and have since lived on the outskirts of almost every community on earth. Persecuted and excluded in their new lands, their societies are secluded ones, often relying on an unlawful way of life and a strong sense of insularity to sustain them. Walsh’s story of his Gypsy upbringing comes at a bitter price: those who choose to leave the group can never return. His tale of living on the caravan is a way of preserving his membership. An outsider himself now, he shares his family’s history of violence and sadness, along with the Romany vibrancy and loyalty that continue to define who he is.
"Prairie Silence" by Melanie Hoffert
Hoffert grew up a rural kid. Her North Dakota hometown was a small one, with empty streets, occasional grain trucks rumbling past, and roles and identities tightly defined. Leaving to pursue a better life meant something more to Hoffert. As a gay woman, she stood little chance of finding a sense of understanding or happiness in her childhood town. Her decision to return, therefore, makes for a poignant tale. Having to explain herself to farmer neighbors who continuously inquire about a “fella” while working at her father’s farm, and exploring abandoned neighboring towns, she learns to accept first her prairie neighbors and then herself -- an act of reconciliation that leaves her with the ability to walk strong on any part of earth where she chooses to live.
"The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap" by Wendy Welch
Welch and her husband landed in a small Appalachian coal town by following a lifelong dream: Building a bookstore they’d once only built in their fantasies, painstakingly talking out its details -- shop dog, creaking wooden floors, bookshop fare made with local ingredients -- during car rides at night after their corporate jobs. Leaving behind life as they’d known it to build their place in the mountains of Virginia, they discovered a dream bigger than they’d ever imagined: The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, which became the force that built their new community, as well as a thriving, vibrant local business.
"Growing Up Amish" by Ira Wagler
At the age of seventeen -- one year after his Rumspringa rite of passage -- Wagler left his Amish family behind. Ten years later he left the Amish Church forever, making himself a permanent stranger to the community that had raised him. His memoir recaptures his childhood among the Old Order Amish: the daily work on the family farm and the family and community rituals that strictly dictated his place in the world. His coming-of-age story is as complex as the facts of his life, a self-discovery sparked by the decision to leave behind a community that had once defined his very being.