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Tales of Little Egypt, by James Gilbert

Tales of Little Egypt is a fictional account of small town America and the peculiar, ordinary, eccentric, sturdy, cunning, and contented characters who created it. Set in the years between the Civil War and the great Influenza Plague of 1918, this is a pageant of imaginary people—the narratives of a score of men, women, and children whose lives illustrate the immense changes and challenges of that turbulent era. This was a period of great events and outsized personalities: splendid World’s Fairs attended by millions, radical new inventions, devastating wars and violent revolutions; leaders like Theodore Roosevelt. But underneath were the people whose stories are as fascinating, troubled, compelling and triumphant as anything that has occupied the attention of historians. There was the town doctor, the local sheriff, the jeweler, the self-appointed matron of morality, a young black girl and her mother, a boy who ran off to the circus and many others: lovers, criminals, teachers, ministers, and odd characters. As a community, their lives and ambitions, their failures and tragedies—sometimes at their own making—and their small successes intersected and became a part of each other.

Marion, Illinois is both a real place and the imaginary location for these stories. Set in the center of Little Egypt, Marion is a county seat in the middle of this unique area, a river delta wedged between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. These two great highways of American immigration and trade sent millions of settlers North and South, East and West and back. The few who stopped off to make it their home created something distinctive. Theirs was a society that reflected the crossroads it occupied and the mix of cultures and sections that it represented. It was both nowhere and everywhere. Therefore their struggles to make sense of this world exemplify the tale and the memory of modern America in the making.

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