“Main Street” by Sinclair Lewis

A pick for one of my book groups, Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street was mostly unknown to me, perhaps because I grew up elsewhere than in Minnesota, the setting for the novel and the origin point for Lewis himself. But now that I do live in Minnesota (and plan to stay) this felt like an enjoyable piece of required reading, one that would probably have been mostly lost on me if I’d read it when younger.

The main character is Carol, a young college graduate who works in Saint Paul, Minnesota before marrying a country doctor and moving to Gopher Prairie, modelled after Sauk Centre, Lewis’ birthplace. Idealistic Carol struggles against the staid pace and less than lovely facade of her new town, but her attempts to modernize thought and behavior mostly fall flat. The novel revolves around Carol’s struggle to accept small-town, middle-American life, while it wonders whether she should.

On a hill by the Mississippi where Chippewas camped two generations ago, a girl stood in relief against the cornflower blue of Northern sky. She saw no Indians now; she saw flour-mills and the blinking windows of skyscrapers in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

In addition to Carol, though, it’s also the story of her husband, Will Kennicott, and their marriage. While the book is mostly viewed as a satire of small-town America, I found it also had some affection for what it mocked, and I appreciated the complicated portrait of marriage that it detailed through Carol and Will over the years.

What struck me again and again, too, was how modern the novel felt. The political and social issues, even the names and details of the Twin Cities, all felt like they were still echoing down the years. I would never have picked this up on my own, and it’s now earned a spot in the permanent library. Not a swift read, but a rewarding one.

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