I like to keep an eye on the literature of my native Iowa, from the baseball fantasias of W.P. Kinsella (Shoeless Joe, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy) to the heart-breaking explorations of small-town life by Marilynne Robinson (Home, Gilead.) Recently, I wrote here about the short stories of J. Harley McIlrath, who does for farms what Marilynne Robinson does for the small farming towns.
Two new books are out, one deeply felt, the other riotously over the top. Both deserve a mention and, for Midwestern readers, a place on the shelf.
Mary Swander is the poet laureate of Iowa and an Iowa State professor. In 2007, she dispatched a class around the state of Iowa to interview residents, mostly about environmental issues. As time passed, the focus on the environment developed into a panorama on farming and how it's changing. They interviewed successful farmers and unsuccessful farmers, farmers who had lost the farm, organic farmers, workers in the state's meatpacking plants, townies, a winery owner. All were part of the changing rural landscape.
Back in the classroom, Swander and her students turned the interviews into a play which they called, Farmscape: The Changing Rural Environment. Over the following months, Farmscape was presented around the state, often with locals reading the lines.
It's a deeply moving production that now has been published by Ice Cube Press, the small Iowa publishing house that published Harley McIlrath and a lot of other good writers that big publishers ignore. The book contains not only the play but a group of essays on it, some by cast members or others involved in the production, others by farm activists.
I wrote a blurb for the book and urged Swander to take the play on the road, out of state to other Midwestern towns that are going through the wrenching changes in rural life. She told me it's appeared in Colorado, Wisconsin, South Dakota and Kentucky. That's great. Every Midwesterner should see it.
I also told Swander that my blurb extended to the play, which is both authentic and beautiful, and to some of the essays, mostly hers and those by persons directly involved in the play. Other essayists, most of whom had nothing to do with the play itself, use it to rail against commercial agriculture -- that is, against any farmer who is actually trying to make a living -- and to prove their own moral superiority. One scorned farmers for producing "an industrial product," as though farmers exist in some world of non-profit purity: I wasn't surprised to see that she is a "sustainable food advocate" based in New York.
My advice is to buy the book for the play, which deals with real people and real life. There are no real heroes or villains, just good people talking about their lives and how those lives are being changed by forces beyond their control.
For an understanding of rural life in the Midwest, not just Iowa, Farmscape is essential.
For something entirely different, there's The Midwest: God's Gift to Planet Earth! This looks like a book, since it has covers on the outside and lots of words inside, but it's more of a grabbag of Midwestern history, states, obsessions, mores, quirks, art, drugs, gays, diet (probably not a word invented in the Midwest), politics, famous residents, residents who had to leave the Midwest to get famous, personality, how the Midwest invented most of the rest of the nation, weather, how we talk, which state has both the world's largest frying pan and the world's largest truck stop, even the Midwest's location -- a useful service, since no one really seems to know where it is.
The book is by Mike Draper, the CEO of Raygun, a Des Moines company that makes gaudy T-shirts, mostly (its website calls it "The Greatest Store in the Universe,") and it's not exactly subtle.
It brags a lot, which Midwesterners never do, and makes fun of Midwesterners, which you can do if you're from Des Moines but don't try it from New York. Its subtitle is: An Illustrated Guide to the History and Culture of the Galaxy's Most Important Region. This region, it says, "is not only a gift to Earth from God himself, but it is truly a mystery, wrapped in a riddle, then deep-fat-fried and served on a stick at the Iowa State Fair."
You get the picture. This is not a book to be read straight through but to be kept in the bathroom and browsed at one's leisure.
So far as I call tell, you can't buy The Midwest on Amazon, but it's for sale on the Raygun site, along with the T-shirts. It's definitely funny and even informative. Like Farmscape (but for entirely different reasons), it's highly recommended.