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The Writing Life - Drifting through Driftless country

September 7, 2013
By Michael Tidemann - Staff Writer , Estherville News
This is a monthly column on the writing process. Topics will range from books and authors to writing conferences and workshops to the writing process itself. Driftless by David Rhodes. Milkweed National Editions. Usually you research the countryside in which a book is set after you read it, not before. After reading Driftless by David Rhodes, the hills and valleys of the southwest Wisconsin Driftless region came hearkening back to me. The Wisconsin Driftless region is a name people have given to that area of Wisconsin marked by limestone escarpments that escaped the last ice age. It’s remarkably similar to the northern Black Hills of South Dakota, except apple orchards and maples and oaks dot the landscape instead of aspen, spruce and ponderosa pine. What Rhodes has done is take a Midwestern locale and crystallize it, much as William Gay did with his native Tennessee or William Faulkner and, more recently, Larry Brown, did with Mississippi. In fact, Rhodes’ ability to equate people with the landscape in which they are born, live and die is probably the strongest part of the novel. Like Brown does with his native Mississippi, Rhodes captures the spirit of the southwest Wisconsin locals — the same spirit with which their ancestors were imbued generations before: “As three generations of rural people had migrated to cities like woodland creatures fleeing fire, the current denizens of Words remained stubbornly rooted in an outdated idea. Like people who refuse to update their wardrobes, they simply ignored all evidence that their matter of living had expired.” Rhodes also shares Brown and Gay’s ability to make language sing, especially as he writes about nature — “As the morning rinsed stars out of the night sky . . . “ July Montgomery, the main character of Rhodes’ novel, is a lot like Brown’s character Joe in his novel by the same name. Montgomery is flawed, yet heroic. He’s an everyman — someone we could all be like and maybe a lot of us are exactly like him. After his wife is murdered, he drifts through life aimlessly but becomes “driftless” in the sense that he finally settles down. By the end of the novel, we find how heroic he really is. It’s probably July to whom Rhodes is referring when he writes: “It was impossible to explain in those days in earlier times, in the past, there really were giants — people who did things, good things, odd things, that others would never do. Those giants were at the heart of everything. Nothing could have been the way it was without them, but how could anyone explain them after they were gone?” And then there’s July: “He had come here, he knew then, as a last stand — to either become in some way connected ot other people or to die. He could no longer live as a hungry ghost.” The novel’s central plot focuses around Cora and Graham Shotwell who find themselves on the losing side in a war with the local cooperative. After Cora tries to expose graft and corruption in the cooperative, the Shotwells find themselves ground under the cooperative’s heel. Rather than give the ending away, I’ll leave it to the reader to check out the book which is at the Estherville Public Library. As I drove through the Wisconsin Driftless region this past June after a weekend writing workshop in Iowa City, I was again struck by the similarity of the countryside to the Black Hills. I actually sold a few copies of my own book too, to two book shops in Viroqua, a health food store in Gays Mills and a coffee shop in Galesville. I was actually on a ghost hunt, trying to soak up the countryside in which a young woman I once knew had been born and grown up. I again visited the town where she had been born, places where she and her parents had lived. And I learned that her father, a retired minister, had died alone in a hunting accident on his own land Dec. 13, 1988, four years to the day after she had died in a car accident on Dec. 13, 1984. I felt the sadness he must have felt at the last place where he lived — and the place where he died. As the new owner walked me across the property that had a creek spilling from the reaching driftless hills, I tried to image what thoughts may have been going through his mind those last moments of his life. Thinking back on visiting that sad place, I began to understand what July may have been going through — that interminable sadness that ends only when life ends. Maybe this is why I was able to relate to Rhodes’ novel so well. I had a context, a countryside and a similar but different event, in which to place it. I would highly recommend Driftless to anyone interested in seeing how an author interprets how Midwestern people are affected by their native landscape. It’s a good book — one genuinely worth reading.


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