Red Herring: Whoville struggling with post-war existentialism

By By Orion Archibald

By Orion Archibald

Fifty years after world-famous journalist and author Theodore Seuss traveled to Whoville to report firsthand the story of the thieving Grinch, much has changed in that sleepy town in that snowy valley. The oil crisis of the ’70s hit the town hard and many working Whos were forced to leave when the local steel-smelting plant shut down. Today, the town is suffering from problems caused by increased immigration, a tight labor market, and many reservist Whos who fought overseas after Sept. 11 and came home profoundly changed. Have the Whos retained their fearlessly optimistic and long-suffering attitude? In the year 2007, do all the Whos in Whoville still like Christmas a lot?

“The biggest shock for me was finding out that the Whoville I’d known as a kid, from the Dr. Seuss book, didn’t exist anymore,” said James Pinkerton, a cultural historian and author in Whoville for research. “It was such a magical place back then and to see it the way it is now is really heartbreaking. I’m not even sure if this place was ever like Seuss said it was. He might have been making it all up, for all I can tell.”

Pinkerton’s findings, which are set to be published next week in a book called Two Sizes Too Small: An American Tragedy 1957-2007, shed sordid light on the town which was the subject of Dr. Seuss’ work. Using census figures, official documents and personal interviews with many Whos featured in Dr. Seuss’ work, Pinkerton charts the path of the small village from its heyday in the mid-’50s to the present day.

“The history of the town reflects, in a smaller way, the changes that washed over America during the ’60s and ’70s,” Pinkerton said.

Opening up a photo album of the late Cindy Lou Who, a famous figure from the book who died last year of breast cancer, Pinkerton points to a series of photographs showing young male Whos returning from Vietnam. One had lost his left arm below the elbow and another was in a wheelchair, his faced raked with shrapnel.

“Vietnam and the end of the ’60s were generally the beginning of the time of troubles for Whoville,” Pinkerton wrote. “Things were never quite the same.”

What followed the turmoil and disillusionment of the Vietnam era was a long, slow decline of the economic fortunes of the city.

“In the ’70s, the oil crisis made the already steep utility bills during the winter practically intolerable for all but the richest Whos,” Pinkerton wrote. “This led to an ugly confrontation at City Hall over subsidizing the heating costs of the city, which led to a riot that burned down the local fuel depot and several of the Whos’ homes. That was probably rock bottom for Whoville.”

The ’80s were no better. Drug abuse climbed alarmingly during this time, with many Whos losing custody of their children and some, their lives. It was during this time that the Grinch, who had long reverted to his old ways, was found frozen stiff in the forest outside of town.

Pinkerton reveals in his book that, “The autopsy revealed a blood alcohol level 10 times the legal limit. The Grinch probably drank himself into oblivion. Of course, the official story was that his heart was too big for his rib cage, but that was probably just to satisfy an anxious and already depressed public.”

Recent times have brought new challenges to the town. The rise of immigration — both legal and illegal — has led to a Whos for Whoville movement which draws support from the working-class housing projects by the freeway. Racially-motivated violence against African-American and Hispanic Whos has spiked alarmingly in recent years, and last year the mayor told a reporter during a press conference that “We must stop the s***s from coming, but how?”

Despite the awfulness of the situation, Pinkerton said he is hopeful that some good might come of it yet.

“Even though Whoville has not lived up to its idyllic past, perhaps, it can continue the tradition of Christmas in providing us with the gift of understanding and reflection — or perhaps this is just a downer of a story for the holiday season,” he said. “Regardless, it’s something to think deeply about when you’re slicing the roast beast.”

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