Stop Flying Over the Midwest and Take a Closer Look

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 6 2014 10:02 AM

The Air Up There

Diane Johnson’s memoir about “flyover” country seems to suffer from altitude sickness.

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Illustration by Gustavo Duarte

Where are you from? How does place define a person? When you move, what do you leave behind, and what is impossible to shed? These questions have been on my mind for weeks, ever since my husband and I packed ourselves into a 10-foot U-Haul and drove due west, from New York, through Winter Storm Electra—wheels spinning, houseplants shriveling, cat yowling—to Chicago, our new home.

For my husband, who grew up in the rural countryside outside Champaign–Urbana, the move represents a return to a state he once thought he had left for good. As for me: I may have married a Midwesterner, may be about to give birth to a Midwesterner, may technically be a Midwesterner, now that I’ve secured an Illinois ID. But after a lifetime on the West and East Coasts, I can’t pretend to know what it means to be from the Midwest, which after all struts to its own rhythms, developed over centuries by a distinctive mix of terrain, weather, great migrations, cultural upheaval, historic event.

Who and what gave rise to the Midwest, and what it means to embrace or escape it, are the ostensible concerns of Flyover Lives, by the novelist and critic Diane Johnson. Considering the recent upending of my life, I began it as perhaps one of the most eager and sympathetic readers Johnson could hope to have. The book is billed as a memoir about the “family ghosts who shape us” and an “exploration of how we shape ourselves.” In truth, it’s a hodgepodge heritage tour, an overstuffed scrapbook—part transcription, part drive-by autobiography, part half-baked commentary—padded with a number of essays (on Johnson’s screenwriting career, for example) that have nothing to do with “flyover” anything. “I’m trying,” Johnson told an interviewer about the project a few years ago, to make the essays “fit together in a sort of way that will say something about the Midwest … and the insularity of Americans.” Alas, it’s precisely when she reaches to make her loftier points that the book flames out.

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Johnson’s story begins on a promising note. Passing through Provence, she and her husband join a French friend and an assortment of Americans—retired Army generals and their wives—for a day or two of food, wine, and forced conviviality. Johnson’s writing here is suffused with the same sly wit and crisp social analysis that readers of her Franco-American novels (Le DivorceLe MariageL’Affaire) so adore. “Like geishas they worked me,” she says of the wives, whose questions about Johnson’s writing make her “feel fascinating,” even if their “smooth tactical tact” reminds her of her Siamese cats, who “worked in a pair, attacking marauders.” Le mew.

During a conversation about ancestral ties and historical memory, Johnson’s French friend slings a straightforward barb: “Indifference to history. That’s why Americans seem so naive and always invade the wrong countries.” The remark sticks to Johnson like a hex, haunting her. It also provokes her to examine a past she “had always had a slightly uneasy relation to,” “conscious of the scorn that people in more fashionable places felt for the plump, bespectacled, respectable folks” of the Midwest.

Diane Johnson
Diane Johnson.

Photo by Miriam Berkley

Johnson grew up the daughter of teachers in Moline, Ill., “a pleasant place, surrounded by cornfields.” Hers was a mild and comfortable childhood—rope swings, The Lone Ranger on the radio, golf lessons and dancing classes, Parcheesi, Monopoly, croquet. “An unusually dense and myopic child, I had been unaware that Moline had Hispanic immigrants, tracks, boxcars in which people lived,” she recalls. “We could have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell illustration.”

Still, Johnson had inklings of a broader, more glamorous world. A taste of Roquefort cheese suggests “vistas of possibility.” The novels of Dumas and Melville inspire dreams of conquering the high seas. In her teens, she yearns to become an airline “stewie” but (ah, fate) is deemed too short. While at Stephens College she wins an essay contest and becomes one of 20 girls chosen to work for a month at Mademoiselle, in New York. She finds the city “scary,” however, and limps home in defeat. “This was still the period,” she reminds us, “when women were encouraged to be educated, bright, and informed, but only in order to be better … wives and mothers.” So she marries her boyfriend. Defers her education. Has four children. Stews in vague dissatisfaction. At last, once her children are in school, she return to her own studies, taking literature courses that open doors and pave the way for her emancipation.

It’s an origin story that could have made for a captivating narrative about the life of a blossoming artist. But Johnson’s book is largely devoid of what we want from well-crafted memoir: unsparing candor, emotional honesty, artful storytelling, a healthy sense of context, an aversion to sentimentality, an interrogation of what one knows, or thinks one knows, about one’s history and oneself.

Over and over again Johnson teeters on the edge of an idea, only to retreat to the cozy screened-in porch of benign reminiscence. She devotes just three paragraphs to her divorce, though the decision to unshackle herself from her first husband and the burden of wifely obligation in no uncertain terms changed her life. Johnson alludes to “dark” times, and one presumes there must have been struggle—emotional, financial, existential. But on the page, she elects to skim over unpleasantness rather than stir the pot. This may be a genteel way to move through life, but it makes for exasperating reading.

Things improve, a little, when Johnson hands the storytelling duties to her ancestors. She is beguiled by the testimonies of “long-departed great-grandmothers, simple stories but all the rarer because the lives of prairie women have usually been lost.” We hear from her great-great-great-grandmother Anne, a pious woman who loathes her neighbors (“a dreadful loose sect of people”), and from her great-great-grandmother Catharine, whose letters and memoirs detail the harsh realities of pioneer life: repeated uprootings, desolate landscapes, rampant disease, premature deaths.