Tara Conklin delivers a satire of small-town life in new novel 'Community Board'
Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech,” part of his iconic “Four Freedoms” series of paintings, is famous for its depiction of a rugged, Lincoln-esque figure exercising his right to participate in local democracy. What’s less well known, however, is that the painting is not just a symbolic rendering of an abstract virtue; it’s a depiction of an actual event.
In November of 1940, the schoolhouse in Arlington, Vermont burned down. Local residents sought to build a new, state-of-the art school; however, to do so would require spending more than the town had received from the insurance company. Such an expense would have to be approved by the people themselves at that uniquely New England form of governance, the town meeting.
Rockwell was at that meeting, and witnessed farmer Jim Edgerton stand up and boldly declare that, no, he actually didn’t think the kids of Arlington needed a new school. He didn’t want to pay any more in taxes to build one, and suggested that the kids could just be sent to schools in other towns. According to an article in Vermont magazine, this left a big impression on the artist. “No one agreed with Jim,” Rockwell recalled. “Everyone wanted him to sit down. But, we knew Jim was entitled to have his say.” In the end, the proposal to build the school passed overwhelmingly and Edgerton ended up earning a good wage helping construct the new building.
As a viewer, we’re primed to believe that the figure in the painting has risen to deliver a rousing speech that rallies his fellow townsfolk to the support of some noble cause. But Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech” is really about having the fortitude to sit around patiently while some crank wastes everybody’s time.
A town meeting and a controversy over a construction project (in this case, an elaborate playground) are at the heart of Tara Conklin’s latest novel, “Community Board,” which offers a comedic look into a fictional western Massachusetts town. Conklin’s last two books tackled big, meaty topics, with mixed results. Her first novel, 2013’s “The House Girl,” sought to contrast the life of a 21st-century lawyer with an enslaved 19th-century teenager. Her next book, 2019’s “The Last Romantics,” was a story of family trauma and climate change set in the far future.
With “Community Board,” Conklin, who grew up in Rockwell’s Stockbridge, has wisely scaled back her ambitions and, as a result, delivered a winning, if sometimes corny, satire of small-town life in the new millennium, where online message boards have replaced gossipy sewing circles and snooping neighbors employ drones to do their dirty work. As small New England towns go, Conklin’s fictional Murbridge, Massachusetts is more “Funny Farm” than “Peyton Place,” with a cast of oddballs who give her protagonist, Darcy Clipper, plenty to do.
When her husband walks out on her, 29-year-old Darcy retreats to her old hometown only to find that her parents have fled to Arizona as a trial run for retirement. Feeling abandoned, she holes up in her childhood bedroom, subsisting on canned food and obsessively monitoring the Nextdoor-inspired community board that serves the town.
With Darcy, Conklin has done something impressive — created a character endearing enough to root for, but just awkward enough that you wouldn’t want to get stuck talking to her at a party. Though she grew up in Murbridge, she’s strange enough to be a stranger, and because of that she’s able to see just how bizarre the town has really gotten since she left.
If you’ve ever read the community message board for your own town, you may have had a similar reaction to Darcy: Who the heck are these weirdos? Out for a jog, she can’t imagine that the normal-seeming people she passes on the road are the same people who vent their spleens online: “Who believed gangs roamed the streets of Murbridge? Who was stealing packages? Who was racist? Misogynistic? Transphobic? Disgruntled? Possibly violent?”
But it’s the board that draws her back into the world, first, by offering her a chance to earn some income finding people’s lost pets, then as a paid assistant to Marcus, who recently moved to Murbridge with his hedge-fund husband Dan and is the visionary behind the massive playground project that sends the town’s NIMBY contingent into conniptions. As Darcy builds connections with her fellow Murbridgians, her confidence grows and she becomes determined not to let the grouchy reactionaries on the community board dictate or define what kind of community Murbridge should be.
Conklin perfectly sketches out the kind of low-stakes, high-intensity conflict that can turn an insular little town into a hotbed of scheming and sniping. And with the online commenters whose vitriol bookends many of the chapters, she captures how the freedom of anonymity and the dopamine hits of social media feedback can make trolls of even the most sober citizen.
The community board and the way it drives engagement through fear, anger and uncertainty paints a sad picture of rural, small-town life, one that Darcy and her neighbors almost succumb to; but Conklin takes a page from Rockwell and asks us not to despair, and to remember that the online voices are but an amplified few. Yes, you have to sit through the occasional speech from a Jim Edgerton-type, but if you let the cranks get you down and opt out, you risk ceding the argument to them. It’s fitting then, that Conklin places the climax of the book at Murbridge’s town meeting. “Everyone here gets a say,” the selectwoman reminds those in attendance. “This place is what you make it. There’s only one catch — you must show up.”