Much of our national dialogue in recent years has focused on the America left behind: the working-class towns, the backwoods communities, the places abandoned by capitalism that seemingly had no answers to their ongoing decline.

In this ambitious, exhaustively reported book, James and Deborah Fallows visited nearly 30 such places that have found their answers. James, a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, and Deborah, an author and academic (they are married to each other), spent more than four years crisscrossing America in their small plane.

They mostly focused on communities off the beaten path; in other words, they flew into flyover country. And what they found should give hope to the America that's reeling from decades of social, political, financial and technological upheaval.

As the authors dropped from the sky into communities from Sioux Falls, S.D., to Duluth, to Ajo, N.M., to Burlington, Vt., to St. Mary's, Ga., they slowly pieced together a list of qualities that determine why some communities make it and others don't. Among them: innovative schools, true public-private partnerships and real, thriving downtowns.

But the real key to success, they found, is people. The authors had a standard question they'd ask soon after arriving in a new place:

"Who makes this town go?"

The answer could be a business tycoon, a civic activist, even a saloon keeper or a folk musician.

"What mattered was that the question had an answer," the authors write. "The more quickly this question was answered, the better shape a town was in."

The book introduces us to dozens of inspiring stories and people, from civic-minded business leaders, to charismatic educators, to politicians willing to yank a downtrodden city out of its comfortable rut.

Even as the authors pile up their stirring and informative tales, a sense of sameness occasionally sets in. By the time you've met a half-dozen dynamic small-town mayors with a vision for reviving their downtowns, there's a sense of been there, done that.

But it's that level of immersion that also allows the authors to lay out a common-sense and well-informed list of themes that could make up a road map to success for any city searching for direction.

A gridlocked Washington, D.C., gets all the attention, the authors write. But the real action is happening at the state and local levels, where communities are taking charge of their directions.

Superbly reported, cleanly and briskly written, brimming with real-life solutions, this is a book for anyone who cares about the life of American communities.

John Reinan is a Star Tribune reporter. On Twitter: @StribGuy • 612-673-7402.

Our Towns
By: James and Deborah Fallows.
Publisher: Pantheon, 413 pages, $28.95.