In ”If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home By Now,’ A Blue Check Mark Moves to Red America
Big-city journalist reports on the worst places to live in America, carelessly mocks the dead-last entry, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere; the residents of said tiny town clap back, invite big-city reporter to visit and decide for himself; big-city reporter takes them up on their offer, falls in love with tiny town, moves his entire family there, lives happily ever after.
Sounds like a pitch for an inspirational Hallmark movie, yes? No. This story is true and the topic of Christopher Ingraham’s new book, If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home by Now. In 2015, Ingraham, a Washington Post data reporter, wrote a column about a U.S. Department of Agriculture study that ranked counties in America from ugliest to most scenic, based on the physical characteristics of topography and climate. Red Lake County, Minnesota, with its flat vistas, long winters that routinely sink below -40, and lack of attractive waterfronts (there are no lakes in Red Lake) ranked last out of more than 3,000 counties.
In true journalistic fashion, Ingraham managed to gild the last-place lily by writing of Red Lake County, “The absolute worst place to live in America is (drumroll, please)…”, earning him the ire of the residents, channeled through “Minnesota Nice”, of course. They challenge him to bag the data and come see for himself, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I must admit, I was expecting If You Lived Here to be a high-brow Green Acres sort of tale, rife with ridiculous small-town characters and hilarious anecdotes about cosmopolitan folk adjusting to life on the farm; and while there are passages that produce an LOL (Ingraham’s dismay over repeatedly killing baby bunnies by accident is darkly funny), If You Lived Here is something else entirely. A blissfully unironic and nuanced treatise on perceptions, judgment, and the deep-seated reasons for why we live where, and how, we do. Once he’s able to see the reality of the lives he so carelessly dismissed, Ingraham starts to question why he’s pouring so much money into a miniscule living space in a crowded suburb and spending an average of fifteen hours a week commuting, effectively missing out on a fair chunk of life spent with his wife and young twin boys.
At times the book borders on an apologetics manual for small-town living, and the small amount of space given to a liberal family adjusting to their Trump-voting neighborhood gave me pause, but Ingraham seems determined to convey that this is his story, not a political or urban vs. rural debate. In that vein, the book largely succeeds, and is a funny and touching testimony to shifting paradigms, and of course, the delights of early morning deer hunting with the bros.
(Harper Collins, September 10, 2019)