- In the Middle of the Middle West: Literary Nonfiction from the Heartland
Stereotypes of the American Midwest abound, but with more collections like this anthology of essays, they won't for long. As editor Becky Bradway notes in her introduction, many people joke about the Midwest. Some call it the flyover zone, a hurdle for those traveling from New York to LA. For these folks, no culture could possibly flourish in the fields and lakes below. One contributor, David Radavich, describes this position in his essay "Midwestern Dramas." "The Midwest has a reputation of being the 'not' place—not the impassioned South, not the establishment East, not the romanticized West. It seems to fall between, an absence that stays the rest of the country, that holds other regions together like a gluing block in carpentry." In other words, it's a practical place, full of practical and dull people: farmers and hicks, blue-collar workers, industrious-white-straight Protestants. Yet the 40 writers collected here debunk these myths. Taken together, their essays help readers appreciate the actual diversity of the Midwest. The variety of writers, locations, styles, and themes lends itself to a complex treatment of place and proves that those who fly over the Heartland at 35,000 feet, sadly, miss a lot.
Bradway's interest in the Midwest stems from her own experiences as a regional daughter, experiences about which she wrote in Pink Houses and Family Taverns (Indiana University Press, 2002). An insider familiar with the stereotypes, Bradway worked to cull a range of voices for In the Middle of the Middle West. She appealed to poets, fiction writers, essayists, academics, journalists, dramatists, and filmmakers. She invited the nationally known—Maxine Chernoff, Stuart Dybek, Scott Russell Sanders—and the greenhorns. She ensured that no one age, gender, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, or cultural tradition would dominate the collection. In her introduction, she recognizes the risk this decision implied—would any shared elements hold these pieces together? In fact, Bradway discovered multiple themes throughout the essays and chose eight categories by which to arrange them. These categories, unfortunately, neither exhaust the book's themes nor particularly represent them. Still, the difficulty of arranging the pieces bespeaks the complexity of each. A book addressing the concerns of place might easily become programmatic, driven by an agenda. These authors and their essays refuse easy categorization, and that turns out to be a strength. [End Page 137]
The writers hail from and write about different locations within the region. Chicago, of course, receives attention, as do farm communities, but for the most part, authors write about the spaces in between—those small cities and townships we overlook in our tendency to polarize the Midwest between urban and rural. For example, Ricardo Cortez Cruz and Rodney B. Cruz cowrite a singsong banter in honor and frustration of their hometown, Decatur, Illinois: "Life in our hood is sometimes scary, edgy, or addictive, we know. But we dig the joy and pain. The sunshine. And rain. Visitors won't want to miss the purple haze and the mind-altering maze of the city. The community itself enjoys a history steeped in the drop of black blood/bile, black bodies swingin'." Decatur, population 83,000, is the Midwest in a microcosm.
Interestingly, as the Cruzes delve into the particularity of place, they upend one popular conception of Midwestern homogeneity. Many people assume that Anglo-American culture defines a city like Decatur, one located at the center of Illinois, surrounded by corn and soybean fields. The vibrant African American community the Cruzes know proves otherwise.
Other writers in the collection make a similar point about the countryside and the suburbs. In his essay "Rural Writers," Robert Hellenga questions the dichotomy between the "high" cultural values supposedly found only in cities and the "down-home, salt-of-the-earth" values found in the countryside. A native of the rural Midwest, Hellenga resists this dichotomy and insists that those who live in the countryside should get to define...