Biography 26.2 (2003) 315-317
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"All history is local" (191), Joseph Amato declares in his book, Rethinking Home, and he makes an eloquent argument for the importance of doing local history, of writing compelling narratives that explain a particular place and people. Only stories that chronicle the most intimate, the most concrete details of everyday life, he asserts, can satisfy "an innate human desire to be connected to a place" (4). More important for historians, the intimate history of a landscape, a community, or a region can illuminate, in microcosm, the great transformations that have swept the countryside and threaten to subsume the local within the national and global. Amato mines his thirty years' experience of living in, studying, and writing about southwestern Minnesota for stories that show how the narrow focus on a particular place can serve as an antidote to the powerful global forces he sees robbing rural life of its autonomy and distinction.
Amato concerns himself with the local history of rural communities rather than urban or suburban landscapes. And he pushes his subject well beyond its traditional anecdotal and boosteristic tendencies. Merely telling the story of a place and its people won't do; local historians must strive to show the forces defining them. One is environment. Home, of course, is not only a cultural construct but an actual physical space. Amato casts widely across the prairie, showing how human interactions with the seemingly ubiquitous and mundane elements of nature—wildlife, insects, muskrats, grasses, and water—are fruitful subjects for study. Drawing on the mushrooming environmental history literature, he might emphasize more strongly that humans not only change and fight in relation to their physical world, but that nature itself is a potent actor in shaping human history. Another powerful determinant in creating a landscape is the market. The individual choices of local agriculturalists relate directly to market demand, thus intricately tying farmers and their land to larger economic networks centered on cities like Chicago. The countryside lies between these two poles, its physical contours fashioned by individuals bouncing between the forces of nature and the forces of the market. Mark Fiege's Irrigated Eden: The Making of an Irrigated Landscape in the American West, for example, makes precisely this point, and could serve as a model for the type of intense landscape study Amato advocates. The literature of "ecolocalism," as historian Megan K. Nelson has termed it in her dissertation "Peculiar Ecology: Swamps and Culture in the Southeastern Borderlands, 1732-1940," has now fully blossomed, and Amato would do well to cite it for his local history readership. [End Page 315]
Had Amato left his argument here he would have effectively promoted local history as environmental history. But drawing on his training as a European cultural historian, he also urges local historians to explore the sensual, emotional, and deviant aspects of rural community. Undoubtedly, this section of his book will provoke the most response from practitioners of the field. Not content with the usual stories of local business elites (which he addresses later), Amato vividly demonstrates how descriptions of the sensory environment—appearances, smells, and particularly, sounds—reveal the tremendous changes engulfing the countryside. He also claims the dark side of community as a legitimate subject of local histories. His chapters on anger, the clandestine, and madness explicate how emotions, behaviors, and even hallucinations are cultural constructs of rural society. Research the discontent, even violence, in local history, he says. Use evidence of the illicit, the transgressions, and the sometimes inexplicable behaviors beyond the bounds of propriety to strip bare the values of society. All such realms of inquiry reveal the steady loss of traditional rural community, and its gradual incorporation into a homogenized national, even global, culture of civility, control, and institutions. Having been raised in rural towns and written local histories, I know that the secret stories are the most interesting and make for the most poignant narratives...