There is some allure, an inexplicable romance, a downright bewitchment surrounding the Midwest and my tastes as a reader, but you won’t find much Garrison Keillor in my library. A single family vacation to South Dakota is my only foray through the Great Plains, the Badlands, America’s heartland. While other booksellers might be able to tell more and speak to their own lives in those great states, me, I have nothing of which to latch my enchantments but some photos of Mount Rushmore, and a few tomes of fantastic prose.
The affair began for me with Leif Enger’s work. Sturdy, warm characters drive his novel Peace Like a River through a bleak winter in an airstream trailer along the trail of Davy Land, a fugitive and killer. It is Davy’s family—janitor father, eyewitness brother, and epic poet sister—that are on his heels as he tries to outrun the law after fatally shooting his girlfriend’s attackers. As the Lands push west from Minnesota, the setting develops into a character all its own. Harsh snows and bitter cold foil the pursuit and counterpoint the warmth generated by a family determined to stand united.
And it is family that provides the tension in Vestments, the debut novel by John Reimringer. A priest on hiatus tells the story of his raucous Irish-Catholic family and rough-around-the-edges faith, regaling a rich drama of love and devotion: bawdy, loud, and drunk. The novel is cut from strong, authentic Midwestern fabric you can curl up with in these cold nights. Even its cover depicts a frigid morning in a quiet, sleepy neighborhood.
The Plains, however, aren’t complete without Kathleen Norris. Her memoir Dakota turns geography into spirituality and back again, relating the hardworking and determined Plainsfolk to the meditative and hospitable Benedictine ascetics she has come to know during periodic residencies at monasteries. Norris is deft in the sort of alchemy that illustrates the dangerous beauty of the heartland while discovering gifts from an unforgiving region.
The Midwest may wear itself quaint and humble as an episode of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion; but, it also has edge. More than just hotdish and bluegrass, the region for which I so often find myself tail over tea kettle wears a stunning collection of durable prose to protect against the harshness of its elements. The snow and rain we’ve had these past days bids me crawl under a blanket, next to a fire, and while away the winter with books like these. -Dave