Miller’s Valley is a story that takes place in a small, rural, mountain town in Pennsylvania in the 1960’s, that is under intense pressure to allow federal agencies to pay them to move their homes and farms elsewhere so the valley can be flooded to create a reservoir. While the people of the town try their best to resist these relocation efforts, they are also facing enormous cultural shifts as the country enters the Vietnam War and social norms surrounding marriage, the roles of women, and the strength of the extended family loosen.
To the “government people” — “who used their job titles instead of proper names and who dealt out stacks of thick, embossed business cards” — Miller’s Valley was just “acres of old family farms and small ramshackle homes.” What the residents fighting the relocation wanted to tell them was that “they couldn’t just disappear our lives, put a smooth dark ceiling of water over everything as though we had never plowed, played, married, died, lived in Miller’s Valley.” “The government resettlement counselor’s job was to make it sound as if one place to live was a good as another,” any new town would be “just as good as this one, the one where you’d brought your babies home from the hospital… where your parents died and were buried.”
Our main character, Mimi Miller — of the namesake family of Miller’s Valley — begins the story as a young girl and narrates the changes affecting her family, town, and country. Through her, we see how young girls in the 1960’s feel the conflicting pulls of both stay in her small, rural town to support her family and its farm and the pull to put her mind to greater use in college and beyond. She is a young woman who is deeply in love with her beautiful home and its people, but also incredibly intelligent and yearning for more from her life than just babies and farm chores. It is in Mimi’s voice that we hear of the local boys off to War, of the small town farmers who struggle with becoming obsolete, of the government scientist’s who are lying to the residents about their land.
Mimi’s real story, however, is how she fits in with the other women in Miller’s Valley as they all face the start of the women’s movement. She tells us about her own journey and she tells us the stories of the local women — teen mothers, farm wives, nurses, “hard women, widows with kids living at home with their parents, forty-something never-marrieds who’ve given up, women who wanted better jobs but couldn’t get them because men wanted them too” — and through them paints a picture of the changes impacting women living through the 1960’s.
Even though this book is slow paced and even tempered, just like Miller’s Valley and its people, that does not in any way mean that is it not hugely impactful. Quindlen’s simple, powerful prose clearly conveying the sadness and frustration of people who are treated as unimportant and as if their lives are easily transmutable. They are repeated told: why fight the inevitable? After all who would want to live in a no-name, nothing-special town? What difference does it make to leave the homes your parents built, the cemeteries filled with your loved ones, the creeks and rivers of your childhood?