Stern, loving, and perceptive essays on life in the countryside; Letters From the Country, by Carol Bly. New York: Harper & Row. $12.95.

Carol Bly's "Letters From the Country" is an unusual collection of stern, perceptive, and loving short essays which originally appeared over several years in the minnesota Monthly. Her great concern is the shallowness of life in the Northern agricultural heartland of America and what she and her neighbors can do about it. These pieces explore, from various starting points, why in the midst of such prosperity our inner lives are so impoverished, the social ties in our rural communities so thin.

When Robert Frost wrote that our small towns provide the best atmosphere in human history for the creation and appreciation of poetry, he was thinking of quaint New England college towns, not the "Lost Swede towns" around the CArol Bly's home of Madison, Minn. In a wonderful piece called "If a Thing Is Worth Doing, It's Worth Doing Badly" she writes:

"There is nothing to beat the self-consciousness you feel when you put on your first play in a town that has never seen a play and never wanted one so far as anyone can tell, and what's more, is of two minds on whether or not plays will (1) make everybody immoral and (2) introduce communism."

What does one do with such attitudes? Where does one begin? Bly and her neighbors began by getting the grown-ups to stage fairy tales for the children. They cast the school counselor as the troll for starters and the county judge as Billy Goat Gruff. Now thatm is true community theater, and it may be a lesson in participatory democracy as well.

Bly is at her best, her most scrupulously perceptive, when exploring the inner lives of those who are isolated by the countryside. When she speaks of the inner satisfactions of farming in Minnesota and their relation to political apathy, she carries the athority of someone who has plowed with the tractor from dawn until well after dark. She is a woman whose learning is wide enough to be worn lightly, one of those rare neighbors anyone might call to borrow a pair of work gloves, some canning jars, or a Loeb Thucydides in Greek.

Her esay "Great Snows" will bring knowing smiles to all who love blizzards. "Quietly Thinking Things Over at Christmas" is a small masterpiece. If she has not yet made a short story out of it, she ought to.

Some of these pieces emphasize the spiritual side of rural life; others concentrate on the social side, but it is Bly's great strength that these two sides are always shown to be inseparable in the everyday world. In a world in which our inner and local struggles often seem like scattered showers in the climate of crisis brought to us by the electronic media, she writes with the life-shaking assumption that the most important thing -- even the kingdom of God , perhaps -- is inside us; that our thoughts, words, and deeds dom matter to our neighbors and to the world at large.

Carol Bly calls herself a gadfly, but she is certainly not a crank. If she has the gall to suggest that our lives are not up to scratch, her criticisms are usually so well thought out that it is difficult to resent them. Her suggestions for cultivating thoughtfulness in rural communities, such as "mail-order servants" and literature courses designed for agriculture students, are often so right that it seems strange that her ideas are not already commonplace.

She is one of the people she writes about. If her concern is urgent, it is because, these are family problems, and Carol Bly is a gifted writer who wants to be part of their solution.

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