March 2, 2014

Midwestern readers can fly right over this memoir

“Flyover Lives” by Diane Johnson (Viking, 263 pages, $26.95)

“Flyover Lives” by Diane Johnson (Viking, 263 pages, $26.95)

While the concept of urban vs. rural is nothing new, the concept of “flyover” is fairly recent – the U.S. first saw nonstop transcontinental commercial flights in the 1950s, and the word itself is documented only in the past 30 years. Initially a dismissive, if not disparaging, term, “flyover” has been taken back (to some extent) by those of us in the states whose wide blue skies are crisscrossed by contrails.

But readers expecting insights into modern Middle America will not be getting them from Diane Johnson’s “Flyover Lives.” This choppy, inaptly titled memoir provides some interesting stories but never really comes together.

The book opens in France, where Johnson is visiting some bigwigs at a summer house, and the discussion turns to history and the awareness – or lack thereof – of the French and the Americans of their own history. Then comes a short section about Johnson’s largely happy, largely middle-class upbringing in Moline, Ill.

From there, she delves into the past, to her ancestors who first came to the Midwest from the area around the U.S.-Canada border. This section, about half the book, is by far the most interesting part of the book, as it draws heavily on old family letters and the writings that detail everyday life in the 19th century, both in the Northeast and in the Midwest. The narration flows well and the stories spring to life (and will make many readers grateful for such modern conveniences as plumbing, telephones and doctors).

But then we’re back to Johnson’s life, jumping from Illinois to California to England to France and back and forth. The writing itself is artful and evocative throughout – unsurprising from a Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-nominated author – but the book seems more like a loose collection of essays than a unified whole.

And the “Flyover Lives” of the title never materialize. Johnson’s ancestors – and her own childhood – predate “flyover” by decades. By Johnson’s own admission, she couldn’t get away soon enough: She left Moline as a young woman and didn’t return for 50 years. This lends an air of condescension to many of her observations, as if we’re all still unsophisticated, uncultured rubes: “In my childhood, people … had long since left off wondering about what went on the world outside; maybe this is still a midwestern mind-set, and, paradoxically, the greater urbanity offered by television now may have increased the impression that the outside world is a deplorable mass of tear gas and bombs.”

It may have seemed that way when she was a child in the 1930s and ’40s, but we’ve moved forward since then. We may be the ones the politicians talk about when they talk about “real America,” but we don’t fit neatly into any one box: We are rural and urban, multiracial and multi-ethnic, with widely varying interests and professions, no more or less “American” than any other American.

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