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Saturday, January 4, 2014


Above it all!

Flyover Lives: A Memoir, by Diane Johnson (NY: Penguin, 2014). $26.95

The ladies themselves could have been any old American mélange like the rest of us there listening, except for our French friend, Simone. She was an American citizen, but not very American. Though female lineage is apt to be surrendered with the last name, in confrontations with Americanness, Frenchness somehow prevails, as water puts out fire, fire burns paper, and paper soaks up water, and so Simone had not surrendered Frenchness to her American husband, she’d added Americanness on. Are roots arbitrary after all, or adopted? 
How could I not connect with this book? Besides being a lover of France, I was born in South Dakota and grew up (insofar as I can be said to have done so) in northern Illinois, spending the formative years from almost-three to nearly-nineteen in the Land of Lincoln. Diane Johnson grew up in Moline, Illinois, and had the mighty Mississippi River as part of her childhood landscape. Within commuting distance to Chicago, I had mighty Lake Michigan. But I know that feeling she describes as being “marooned in those fields of waving corn, stranded far from any ocean or shore....” Fields of corn, like fields of sugar cane, start out as open prairie but quickly, with jungle speed, grow up to be walls. And behind them? More green walls.

Cornfields across the road from my childhood front porch, though, were also my first association with “the West,” a distant, fabled, romantic land. Across the road and into the sunset I rode imaginary horses, borrowed from stories in library books, far beyond a bucolic horizon that was, in fact, but the last remnant of farmland within walking distance: on the other side of the cornfield lurked new suburbs and, by the time I reached adolescence, a shopping mall. Standing on the shore of Lake Michigan, either Chicago pavement or Indiana Sand Dunes beach, I felt almost literally pulled by the larger world’s magnetic influence out of my ordinary, three-bedroom, one bathroom (all rooms small) family home on the prairie. A boyfriend and I dreamed of New York and Paris, cities that would not, we imagined, go dark at night.

Unlike Diane Johnson, I have never escaped to France for more than two or three months at a time, and it has been over a decade since David and I made our last delicious visit, meandering from Paris to Avignon and back again. Yet the questions and longings Johnson recounts echo in my head with a twinge of recognition: “Was it possible I was only pretending to be comfortable in Europe when I am really an Illinois hayseed whose core of naïveté cannot be effaced?” Had one even been comfortable in Illinois? “A pleasant place,” she admits, “surrounded by cornfields” but one “I had always longed to get out of.”

Stung by the remark of a French friend to the effect that Americans are naive because they are ignorant of history, Johnson begins searching for documentation on her American ancestors. The quest takes her back to 1711, when the ship on which Ranna Cosset, as his name became in America (originally probably René Cossé) came from France, bound for Canada, was captured by an English captain. Ranna is treated to a very easy “imprisonment,” left at large on his own recognizance, cautioned only not to leave Middleton, Connecticut. There is no sign that he chafed at the stricture: when the time came for him to be released and sent to Montreal, his original destination, he flatly refused to go. He stayed and married, and his family flourished in New England, on the boundary between Canada and the new United States. Much of the history Johnson uncovers comes from a memoir written by Ranna’s great-granddaughter. It was she, born in 1800, who made the pioneer journey in 1827 with her new husband, to the Midwest. The family settled first in Ohio, eventually in Illinois.

If “Elsewhere” and new beginnings characterized the first ancestor arrived in North America and the subsequent pioneers who came to the Midwest, however, by the time Diane Johnson begins her family research her relatives have been settled in place for 200 years. No one has immigration stories or tales from the Old World, “only about Bloomfield, or over to Pontiac or Muscatine or faraway Des Moines....” The prairie is both their present and past life. Thanks to World War II, though, her father had been to Venice, Italy, and the name alone was enough to set Diane dreaming.

Big waters mid-continent
A friend and I have mourned the fact that so many foreign visitors visit New York, Miami, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and Hollywood, and think that they have seen “America.” Johnson admits, “We were never a tourist destination” (true) but also notes that “Midwesternness” may not be interesting to anyone not from the Midwest. (Would “not interesting” hinge more on the tour guide and the tourists’ expectations than features intrinsic to the place? Hers is the familiar Midwestern opinion that the Midwest lacks regional characteristics, which reminds me of young Midwesterners who think that only people from other parts of the country have “accents,” as well as something I heard only the other day, that Americans of German descent do not believe they have identifiable ethnic personality traits. Is an apple dull and ordinary, a fig or a pineapple exotic?) But she loved her aunts and uncles and enjoyed a thoroughly pleasant, untroubled childhood, and early sections of her book recount childhood and adolescent memories without being sticky or schmaltzy with nostalgia.

Venturing off to London as a young divorced graduate student with four young children seems a very nervy thing for Johnson to have done, given her earlier experience of having been “daunted” by a summer internship in New York when free, childless and not all that much younger. I loved her memories of the happiness she found in the Reading Room of the British Museum. The stories of her film-writing career involve such notables as Jack Nichols Stanley Kubrik, to name only two, and the glimpses she gives us behind the scenes of the film industry make absorbing reading even, or possibly especially, for those of us far from the Coast, still “marooned” here in flyover country.

My only disappointment with Flyover Lives was that there is no trace in these pages of Johnson’s life in Paris. Opening and closing sequences visiting friends overnight in Provence, most of them Americans, are as French as the memoir gets. Yes, I enjoyed the London account (especially that library), but I had expected the story to go back and forth between Illinois and Paris. Not that anyone told me it would. Clearly, I need to explore other books by Diane Johnson. What about that little hut overlooking the Seine, anyway?

One of the many passages I loved, on the other hand, was this description of her childhood reading and adoration of sea adventures:
Girls were never shanghaied, but it took me a long time to understand that this romantic fate wasn't likely to be mine; there was nothing to lend desirable drama to my future. In my gender-neutral imagination, I was the protagonist, in my hammock or on deck when the pirates were spotted on the horizon, or when the rough mate with his eye patch went amok on the bridge. ... The books in childhood are the ones that can point your life toward something, and though, in the case of a puny midwestern girl, becoming a pirate was not a realistic goal, it took a long time for me to relinquish that hope.
 Her question of how much interest non-Midwesterners can muster for the Midwest keeps recurring as I think about this memoir, since what is “flyover country” to others has always been “home” to me, the Great Lakes sweeter than any dangerous ocean, with their treacherous tides, undrinkable water, and horror movie monsters. (As the t-shirt slogan has it, “NO SHARKS NO SALT NO WORRIES.”) Who, that is, will be the audience for this book?

First, I note that there are a whole lot of us here in the middle of the continent. Millions. Secondly, how many people calling themselves New Yorkers and Californians grew up in the Midwest and have childhood memories like Diane Johnson’s, even if maybe without all the Midwest generations? Thirdly, this is the memoir of a novelist and film-writer who has made her adult life in New York, London, Paris, and San Francisco, and who doesn’t wonder about the origins of successful Americans? Now, if a reader in L.A. or Boston or an ex-pat somewhere in Provence needs another reason to read this book, how about approaching it as an anthropologist? The strange customs of American prairie towns! The inbred reticence of a Midwesterner outside the Midwest!

If Johnson’s flyover country is as familiar to you as your own childhood, try approaching it as a sociologist, “making the familiar strange.” And if it is already strange country to you, a place you’ve never given a second thought, Flyover Lives will give you the armchair anthropologist one insider’s view of what we called in Illinois when I was growing up “the heartland.”

Northern Michigan, where I live, has more lakes and beaches and hills and woods than cornfields, but like Illinois it doesn’t have New York City or Hollywood or the Grand Canyon. Sometimes, though, when I’m driving the roads of my rural county, I imagine a French friend (in imagination my friend Hélène is still alive) riding in the car with me on her first visit to the U.S. She hasn’t come simply to be a tourist but to be with us on our home ground, to be part of our life for as long as she’s with us, and as I drive I point out to my absent friend various ordinary aspects of the landscape I love. Diane Johnson recounts her “ordinary” Midwestern growing-up years with both fondness and the distance acquired by a lifetime of having lived Elsewhere.

Flyover country between Detroit and Chicago


BB-Idaho said...

The perception that Europeans would find the hinterlands a bore
is interesting. Perhaps we shall find out more, as my wife's cousins from Switzerland are considering a visit. Since they vacation from Helsinki to Barcelona and live in metro
Zurich, I'm thinking a day or
two in a small town might give
the impression of backwoods boredom. On the other hand, I have heard Europeans are fascinated with native Americans and surely the vast distances beyond the Mississippi contrast
with claustrophobic life in big
European cities. (Hopefully, US
hosts present a different view
than the sometimes rude/culturally ignorant tourists
we often send overseas). These Swiss are interested in surprising
things, one woman had seen the movie 'Lincoln' and was devouring
everything she could find on our
Civil War. So, planning-wise, a
couple of parks, a trip to the Nez Perce National Museum, our
tree-lined downtown where folks
are beyond friendly. Certainly, I can talk Civil War for weeks. If all else fails..the scary trip up the raging Snake River through Hell's
canyon. As a neophyte host to foreigners any help would be
appreciated. Help!

Dawn said...

Hmmm. I've also often thought that our Midwestern lives don't provide much to work with for an author. I remember thinking that as I was growing up. None of the library books I checked out were set in Michigan. I figured as a kid you had to live somewhere more exciting to be a writer. So I get all of this. Now that I'm an adult I know differently, and have even read a few books (some you recommended too) that are set right here in my home state. Always makes me smile, just from recognition.

Gerry said...

It's nice to come over here and read a review and find you and Sarah all bundled up for a walk and just, you know, think about stuff.

I think perhaps no country is ever completely knowable, even to its own people, let alone to visitors. It's hard to shed our filters and just see what's right there in front of us when we're not on our own home ground. But aren't we having a fine time trying!

I would go out and wave at you but it's too cold and there's too much blowing snow. Imagine me waving.

Dawn said...

Hoping you guys are OK way up there in the cold and snow. We have cold and snow too...but I'm sure it's just as bad or worse there.

P. J. Grath said...

BB, your plans for the Swiss visitors sound great. I trust they are not coming in WINTER, when a trip through Hell's Canyon would probably not include a return ticket!

Gerry!!! What a nice surprise to hear from you! I hope you are warm and snug over on your side of the Bay?

Dawn, we are surviving -- three days in the house -- finally made it to town today to get mail, restock groceries, and have the bookshop open for a little while. I'm really, really glad you have enjoyed books set in our beautiful home state of Michigan and am glad I could introduce you to some of them!