October 1993

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Book Review

The Sweet Vale of Avoca

The History of Avoca, N.Y.

by Grace S. Fox

Family Life Ministries, Bath, NY, 1993, 192 pp., illus.
Reviewed by Thomas D. Cornell

Included in The Sweet Vale of Avoca are all of the elements needed for a history of a rural township in New York's Southern Tier. The book opens with "Part I: Pioneer Days, 1794-1843," which discusses both the Indians and the earliest European-American settlers. In recounting Avoca's history since then, the book considers community leaders and various organizations (churches, schools, businesses, etc.). It also considers local disasters (notably, fires and floods), national events (especially wars and depressions), and changing patterns of immigration, transportation, and business.

Included in the book are a wide range of historical items: the poem from which the book derives its title (p. 2), a letter from a soldier in the Civil War (pp. 17-18), an 1893 editorial about the town (pp, 53-55), etc. Also included are numerous sections on particular topics written by current members of the community. Yet the book is not an anthology. It does have a primary author-namely, Grace S. Fox, the town historian—who wrote the unattributed sections and gave the book its overall design.

Unlike historical treatments in which material from various sources is subordinated to one person's narrative voice, the components of The Sweet Vale of Avoca have been successfully coordinated. What emerges is thus a community project, with the author serving more as a leader than a lone creator. This style produces an open-weave structure that lends itself to browsing. No matter where you open the book, you are at most a page away from specific items on which you can focus your attention-short sections with bold headings or numerous (about 70) clearly rendered photographs.

But the book can also be read from cover to cover, in which case a very interesting picture takes shape. Avoca is not a large community. In fact, it is probably about as small as a community can be and still maintain a distinctive identity. What accounts for this success? The character of the book as a community project suggests one significant factor. Many of history's centrifugal forces can be counterbalanced by the center-seeking centripetal force of a concerned and active citizenry. In addition, the book's emphasis on agriculture and education suggest another important factor—namely, Avoca's deep committment to what, in the long run, are its most durable resources: its land and its young people.

Every book has ways in which it might be improved. In this case, I can think of several. The Sweet Yale of Avoca needs an introduction describing the process whereby the book emerged. It needs a variety of small errors corrected (not just those on the separate, photocopied sheet of "corrections and additions" but also a variety of typos). The "group picture identifications" and "bibliography" need to be part of the book itself (instead of a stapled set of separate, photocopied sheets). There need to be maps showing the streams, railroads, roads, school districts, etc., mentioned in the text (though the map on the cover goes a long way).

Yet none of these is a major shortcoming. On the whole, The Sweet Vale of Avoca offers a successful blend of stories and information. It provides a full, unified account where none existed before. As such, it is an important addition to the history of the region.

© 2003, Thomas D. Cornell

Editor's Note: The book is available at the Avoca town hall for $7.50 or by writing to Historian, Avoca Town Hall, Avoca, NY 14809 for $10. Supplies are limited.

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