Where else would Ray Kinsella have built his Field of Dreams except in an Iowa cornfield? Am I right? A baseball diamond where the ghosts of the past could come for healing and restoration – for their own and for the living? Had to be in the heartland, where the solid goodness of America is on full, homogenized display. “Is this heaven?” Ray’s long-dead dad asks. “No, it’s Iowa,” Ray responds. But we know he’s wrong, and Ray does, too, when he looks up at the farmhouse porch where his wife and daughter are playing. “Maybe it is heaven,” he mumbles.
Yeah, Iowa’s gotta be heaven. When the rest of the country has gone to pot, dissolving into arguments over bathrooms, borders, and Trump, always Trump, something green will still be growing in Iowa. Something pure and enduring will always play out between the chalked lines of a Midwest ball field. If we want to believe in America again, we’ll take a road trip (because you can’t get there by plane) to Iowa.
If we want to believe in America again, we’ll take a road trip (because you can’t get there by plane) to Iowa.
Except…maybe the Midwest is not the Midwest anymore. Maybe the stories of diversity and change that play out on the coasts have found their way to Ames and Grinnell, too. Maybe there are trials and even terrors on the prairie. Maybe…gulp…Iowa’s not heaven.
Mark Athitakis is not afraid to tell you that it’s not, but he will tell you that the Midwest is vibrant and interesting all the same. I just finished his new book, The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt [Belt Publishing, 2016]. Athitakis is a writer and book reviewer for the likes of The New York Times and Chicago Sun-Times and he writes a regular column on Midwestern books for Belt Magazine. In this slim review of Midwestern fiction you can get a good list of books you want to read, but also some insights into how not only the lit but also the land is changing.
“The Midwest is a richer, more contrarian, more surprising place than the one we’re encouraged to carry in our heads,” Athitakis tells us on page 15. The writers he wants to introduce us to are more willing to acknowledge this, too. He goes beyond Marilynne Robinson, whose Iowa trilogy of Gilead, Home, and Lila, he feels often gets miscategorized as a tribute to gauzy, Midwestern values, ignoring the social tensions beneath the surface. And he takes us to people like Aleksandr Hemon, a transplanted Bosnian to Chicago who “became an American less by choice than by force, by accident” — a perspective that leads him to write “about America not from the perspective of constitutional idealism, but decay and threat. For his heroes, America isn’t the New World but the Old World’s postwar absurdity in a different costume” (21).
“The prevailing question today is now slightly different: How do I become myself in this place?” (17)
Athitakis’s grandest theory is that the Midwest is no longer the backdrop for stories about how disparate people become Americans (a la Willa Cather, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Richard Wright, and Saul Bellow). “The prevailing question today is now slightly different: How do I become myself in this place?” (17) Some novels, like Laird Hunt’s Indiana, Indiana, which talk about Midwestern landscapes, now “evoke place less through descriptions of the flatness of the territory, but by evoking a desolation that echoes it.” (48)
The New Midwest is a quick read that sparked a lot of thoughts for me. I finished it with Walter Wangerin, Jr.’s poem ‘A Psalm at the Sunrise’ echoing in my ears. Looking out my window at the winter field across the road, I feel that I, too, “wake to an effulgence of mirrors, and lo: I see.” It’s not the pure light of America that I see glowing in the dawn or in the Iowa cornfield. It’s the refracted light of multitudes. Christ playing in ten thousand places, if you will. Rural is plural that way.