Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Midwestern History

Flyover Lives by Diane Johnson
Reviewed by Diane K.M.
My rating: 3.5 stars rounded up to 4

This was a charming memoir, even though it rambled in parts. But even the rambling parts were rather interesting.

Diane Johnson grew up in Moline, Illinois, which is part of the Midwest, which has been derisively called "flyover country" by those who live in big cities on the coasts. I was keen to read this book because I grew up in Iowa, which is next door to Illinois, and indeed, many of Diane's stories were similar to my experiences there, even though there is a 40-year difference in our ages. Much of the Midwest is not very changeable, you see.

"I had always wondered how the first settlers in Illinois, in the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, survived the ruthless climate and isolation, how they managed to clear the tough woodlands to make their farms, how they taught their kids something about Shakespeare and Mozart, and eventually pitched in for a war like the Civil War though they'd barely seen a black person or encountered a slave. No one writes much about the center part of our country, sometimes called the Flyover, or about the modest pioneers who cleared and peopled this region. Yet their midwestern stories tell us a lot about American history. Migration patterns, wars, the larger movements, are after all made up of individual human beings experiencing and sometimes recording their lives."

Diane was one of those restless kids who dreamed of traveling and moving away from her small town, and eventually she did. At the beginning of the book she is living in France, and while at a house party, a French friend tells her that "Americans are naive and indifferent to history."

This quote bothers Diane to the point where she spends months researching her ancestors, going through family heirlooms and diaries, and ends up writing a book about them. (So take that, you obnoxious woman!)

"I became especially interested in some testimonies by long-departed great-grandmothers, simple stories but all the rarer because the lives of prairie women have usually been lost. Perhaps prairie women at the end of the eighteenth century didn't have the leisure to pick up their pens, or maybe they didn't think their lives were of interest."

Most of the history Diane dug up involves her great-great-great grandmother Catharine Martin (born in 1800), who took time to write a hundred pages about her life when she was in her 70s.

The prose in Diane's memoir is lovely, and I flagged numerous passages while I was reading. My only complaint was that some of the chapters jumped around in time and perspective, which was a bit jarring. Some pieces felt like they should have been magazine articles or essays, but got shoved in this book wily-nily. For example, there is an interesting section about Diane's experiences with writing screenplays and working with movie directors, including Stanley Kubrick, Merchant Ivory and Mike Nichols, but the placement seemed random. And some of the chapters were so short that they felt like afterthoughts.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable read, and I appreciated the historical details about Midwestern life in the 1800s, and also Diane's stories about growing up in the 1940s. Before this memoir, I had only read one of Diane's novels (Le Divorce), but I liked this so much that I think I'll look up her other books. 

Favorite Quote:
"As a little girl in Moline, I didn't expect to be a writer, because I didn't know a writer was something you could be; I had no sense that books were still being written."

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