The American Midwest - The Bread Basket, The Rust Belt, The Heartland - so much of our identity here in the middle of the country is based in food production and manufacturing, but there is a rich literary tradition sprouting from the cracks of these factory towns and cornfields. Of course there are the towering, one might even say, overshadowing figures of Hemingway and Fitzgerald (both born in Illinois), but the voices coming out of this fertile soil are much more diverse - Hanif Abdurraqib, Louise Erdrich, Roxanne Gay, Celeste Ng, and of course, our own Ohio queen Toni Morrison. Names such as these fly in the face of the stereotype of the white bread sameness of “flyover country.”
We must never forget when we consider Midwestern culture that we are living on stolen land. The conquest of Indigenous peoples had profound repercussions that are still being felt today in the lives of their descendants. The landscape of the area, with its monocultural farms and carbon dioxide spewing factories bears no resemblance to that of the time before white encroachment. It behooves those of us who live in cities and suburbs to consider where our food comes from and how far modern farming practices have departed from those of the people who were here before us.
Diane Wilson brings the impacts of these practices into light in The Seed Keeper. The novel follows the life of Rosalie Iron Wing, a Dakota woman who is orphaned at an early age and spends her life in search of her identity as an indigenous woman, as a mother, and as a seed keeper. We get a little of the back story of Rosalie’s maternal ancestor, Marie Blackbird, who is forced from her home after the 1862 U.S.-Dakota war. Before she goes, she sews seeds into the hem of her skirt, not knowing where she is being sent or where she will eventually plant them. (This story is based on actual accounts from the time.) This wisdom comes into play in Rosalie’s life over a hundred years later. She marries young, to John, a white farmer, and they have a cordial if passionless marriage of convenience. Their son Tommy grows from being his mother’s shadow to being John’s business manager. John’s farming practices are conventional for the time and place (1970-2000’s Minnesota). While John tends the farm, Rosalie’s attempts at developing a kitchen garden meet with initial failure despite her best efforts.
A representative from Mangenta, an agri-business company selling genetically modified seeds and pesticides, comes to the community and, for all intents and purposes, blackmails the area farmers into entering into an exclusive contract with the company. John caves to the pressure, and it costs him dearly. It also opens a rift between Rosalie and Tommy.
In her later life, Rosalie returns to her childhood home, a ramshackle house in the woods where she lived with her father until his death. Here, she reflects on her life, her relationship to her family, past and present, and her connection to the earth. What saves her are her longtime friendship with her fellow foster-care resident Gaby Makespeace and her arduously honed gardening skills. Gaby is a remarkable side character, a formerly rebellious teenager turned environmental activist.
The characters are nuanced, with complex motivations. There are no real good guys and bad guys here; the only real enemy is the faceless corporation. The language of the book is direct and unflowery, but is the perfect vehicle for this gentle reminder that caring for the earth is in everyone’s best interest.
While there is a plethora of great non-fiction published in the Midwest (check out the work of Dave Giffels, Hanif Abdurraqib, Anne Trubek to name a few, as well as the work put out by Belt Publishing), my recommendations this month will focus on fiction.
Here are a few of my favorite Midwest-centric novels of recent years -
Cuyahoga by Pete Beatty
This rollicking tall tale reimagines the founding of Cleveland, Ohio as the feat of the superheroic Big Son. The cast of characters is as quirky as anything out of Deadwood, and their exploits create a new mythology for the opening of the Midwest. A fun escape into an alternate history.
Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman
The fact that Ducks, Newburyport is over 900 pages, nearly all of which is a single sentence, should not daunt the reader. Our narrator, an anonymous homemaker in Tuscarawas County, streams a running commentary on small-town life, marriage and remarriage, gun violence, the rise of hate in Trump’s America, and her analysis of Little House on the Prairie.
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
In this dystopian novel, a pregnant Ojibwe woman tries to return to her birth family in a time of war, environmental breakdown, and religious tyranny.
Ohio by Stepen Markley
Four high school friends reunite in their northeast Ohio hometown. Their lives have diverged widely, and the secrets and betrayals of their pasts boil to the surface in the course of a single hot summer night.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Morrison’s debut novel won a well-deserved Pulitzer. It’s an unflinching look at the damages wrought by racism and colorism.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
You’ve seen the series, now do yourself a favor and read the book. It’s a a sharp commentary on the oppressiveness of suburban mores and the damage wrought by intolerance.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Jesuits in spaaaaaaace……. Seriously, Russell’s cautionary tale of a space mission gone horribly wrong has become a classic, setting a new standard for the genre.
The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels
This book will break your heart. Brian, suffering from AIDS in 1986, has returned to his home in Bible-belt southern Ohio to reconnect with his less-than-accepting family and to die. Threads of redemption run through the narrative, as an entire town is changed by having a mirror held up to its intolerance. Your heart and tear-ducts will be wrung dry.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal
Eva Thorvald is an unforgettable character, a woman who rises above her broken childhood to become one of the most sought after chefs in the country. Warm and funny, it’s a culinary love letter to the Midwest.
Cherry by Nico Walker
This one hits particularly close to home, with much of the action taking place on and around Coventry Road. It’s a gritty semi-autobiographical examination of how a young man’s life is derailed by war and addiction.
There are so many great poets who have roots in the Midwest, it was hard to pick just a few! Here is a too-small sampling -
The story goes from in a rainfall
to sister walking a field
browned autumn. And when she arrives
winter has come, so the old man
rises from his chair, picks up
matches, pipes and tools, and
walks out to begin again.
The sculptures grow by the day,
birds in ice, recognizable
eagles, a bear who began
as a man in a moment of dance.
He does this in ice, all
winter carving at dawn,
carving at dusk.
And sister after walking a field
browned autumn, arrives, watches
from the east window, waits,
goes out to him in spring,
taps him on the shoulder
and points to the pools
of water he’s standing over.
~Gordon Henry, Jr.
Gordon Henry, Jr. is Anishinaabe and an enrolled member of the White Earth Chippewa Tribe of Minnesota. This poem appears in the anthology New Poems of Native Nations, edited by Heid E. Erdrich (Graywolf, 2018).
to Adam & Rebecca, on the occasion of their wedding
they say you’re having
a renaissance, that
there’s new life in you,
they say you’re the city
where you come from,
they say you’re better
than Columbus, they say
you’re on the rise you’re
the hottest you’re
the reason you’re the
king you’re back,
they say it’s you
against the world,
they say there’s no
mistake about it,
they say you two
are like the smile
+ Baker’s face, like
the river + the jokes
about its burning,
bratwurst + perogies,
the St. Patrick’s Day
parade + yelling
out a window
like road + salt,
like slush + streetlight,
like one cloud
of breath + another
cloud of breath,
like a head +
of a jacket.
~ Danny Caine
Danny Caine is a former Clevelander and the author of the book How to Resist Amazon and Why (Microcosm Publishing, 2021). This poem comes from his newest collection Flavortown (Harpoon Books, 2020). He lives in Lawrence, Kansas where he owns Raven Book Store.
In Cleveland, snow so thick it looked as if it were not falling but
hovering, I shuffled along the snowbanked side of Washington
Boulevard, halfway to campus, when a Suburban scrolled past,
slowed. The driver’s window lowered to a woman in a copper wig. In a
Brooklyn accent, she asked if I needed a roide. I didn’t know her from
Eve. She was brave or kind or both. “I’m almost there,” I replied. She
said, “You’ll probably get there before I do!” We laughed together in
the falling snow, as she rolled up her window…
Into the minibus, near Jerusalem, the young Palestinian climbed.
He wore a pen in his Oxford, black hair parted clean. We got to talking where we were from. He hoped, he said, to study engineering
in Cleveland. The minivan braked. We pulled out passports. A
soldier barked something we couldn’t follow, the young man said
something we couldn’t follow, his hands dancing in the empty air.
The soldier grabbed his wrists. We pulled away (we couldn’t follow)
and he disappeared, surrounded by three soldiers, as we drew near
~ Philip Metres
Philip Metres is the author and translator of eleven books and chapbooks, including The Sound of Listening: Poetry as Refuge and Resistance (University of Michigan 2018); Pictures at an Exhibition (University of Akron 2016); Sand Opera (Alice James 2015); and I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (Cleveland State Poetry Center, 2015). Recipient of two NEA fellowships, the Lannan Fellowship, and, two Arab American Book Awards, he is a professor of English and the director of the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights Program at John Carroll University in Cleveland. This poem is from Shrapnel Maps (Copper Canyon Press, 2020.)
Lots of great books coming out in the next few months! Here are a few previews -
Coming in September -
Matrix by Lauren Groff
Lauren Groff’s transcendent new novel follows the life of Marie de France, the 12th-century poet and abbess. Marie’s actual identity, cloaked in the fog of time, is the subject of much speculation among scholars, but Groff imagines her as an intelligent, fierce woman who does not suffer fools gladly. In her story, Eleanor of Aquitaine, with whom Marie has a contentious relationship bordering on friendship, sends her to England to serve as an abbess. The nuns under her leadership are a colorful cast of characters, and are all cogs in the wheel of Marie’s story. This is at its core a female text. There is not a significant male character to be found. Groff has established herself as a writer of deep intelligence with a canny flair for dissecting the human condition. She does not disappoint here. Matrix is historical fiction of the highest order.
Coming in September -
On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint by Maggie Nelson
Maggie Nelson’s brilliant memoir, The Argonauts, set a new standard for the genre, with a fresh, intriguing play of language and form. This new collection of essays looks at the concept of freedom through four lenses, art, sex, drugs, and the environment. She discusses recent controversies in the art world. the ramifications of sexual liberation, the wide-ranging consequences of addiction, and the numbing despair wrought by climate change. It’s all convincingly argued and meticulously researched and documented, with over 60 pages of notes and references. For those who enjoyed Olivia Laing’s Everybody: A Book About Freedom, this is a worthy next read.
Coming in October -
Jacket Weather by Mike DeCapite
Mike DeCapite’s semi-autobiographical new novel is a love letter to New York, to food, to music, and to love itself. His largely aimless rambles around the city are documented in short, fragmented observations on the minutiae of life as a middle-aged human in the Big Apple. If Jack Kerouac had not self-destructed, but instead had found comradery and a somewhat restless contentment, he might have written something like this rhapsodic, poetic book. DeCapite’s insights, especially those on mortality, are like a tender nudge to the heart. My favorite one - “Life is a process of being gently shown the door.” It’s honest and gritty, but the grain is like the finest sandpaper.
For further reading -
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