Letter from Langdon: Review of ‘The Small-Town Midwest’

Julianne Couch’s new book, The Small-Town Midwest: Resilience and Hope in the Twenty-First Century, is a road trip through five Midwestern states that highlights common experience and community leaders.

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If you said author, writer, editor, and teacher Julianne Couch gets out in the world, you’d be right. She has written three books dealing with off the beaten track destinations.

Even the smallest parts of the world can be as large as we make them if only enough time is taken to know them well.

From Wyoming bar-hopping (covered in Jukeboxes & Jackalopes), to power lines from Wyoming to Maine in Traveling the Powerline, Julianne gets around. Now with her latest book, The Small-Town Midwest: Resilience and Hope in the Twenty-First Century, Julianne gets down to the nitty gritty soil of the rural American debate about who we are and where we’re going, in part at least by studying where she’s been.

Visiting nine rural communities in five states, Julianne digs deep into her roots, because this is where she came from.

She wanted answers so that we may, in turn, have them too.

Those five states — Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri — are states she knows something about. She’s always lived here among the “eye rolling monocultures of flyover country.” But as we learn from Julianne, seemingly microscopic sized communities in her five states offer more than condescending city attitudes might easily admit.

Author Julianne Couch.
Author Julianne Couch.

The highest population density of the communities she documented was 31 people per square mile. That’s about one-thousandth of Omaha, Nebraska, which averages 3,247 people/square mile. Over a period of three years, Julianne drove 3,600 miles visiting river communities and towns on the plains and in the flint hills, from elevations as high as 8,400’ down to 297’.

What she found were communities struggling with depopulation from farm consolidation, post boom oil and gas, a closed institution of higher learning and an abandoned packing plant, towns that rely on prison tourism, and one that attracts visitors with the potential disaster of an earthquake prone geological fault line.

Julianne’s fascination with rivers led her to the Mississippi River in Jackson County Iowa, population density 31 per square mile. That’s where she and her husband make their current home in Bellevue, population 2,172.

She points out in the introduction to her book that a friend from New York City wondered how it would be possible to make much of a book on seen-one-seen-’em-all rural towns. What Julianne learned during her research was that while small American villages have much in common, they are as diverse and uncommon as the scenery and history along her 900 mile as-the-crow-flies five state corridor from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River.

And without exception each one is on the “blah level” of sophistication. Most residents of places like those she visited travel to larger towns of for otherwise unavailable amenities of life, depending on drive time and their need to escape the “blahs”.

Here in the hinterlands, community is what we make of it.

Or, as in the mind of Julianne Couch, what we make it of.

Julianne has summarized the places she visited, joining them together in a minds eye community. She featurs leaders and visionaries from all the places she visited, putting each in charge of what they do best in their own neck of the woods. But she acknowledges that at times communities, like people, have a life with natural beginnings and a natural ends. What gives her hope,she says, is the “rooters and rangers” of the world. People who “plant themselves in one spot permanently and people who make a sail out of their mobility and let the wind be their guide.”

The secret to longer life for these outliers of community is the ability to tempt one more generation, or maybe only a single member of a generation, to land there and stay.

Approaching her story as a traveler allowed Julianne to explore what most of us might miss on a single drive through, where all we see is a four way stop and convenience store restroom. What Julianne the traveler found was what most expect, that even as we identify heavily with the portrayal of America’s small town image, few of us are tempted to live here much longer than a family visit or brief bed and breakfast weekend.

But though the communities portrayed in Julianne’s Small Town Midwest may not have full measure of Americas diversity, she also found that we still represent the best part of America in it’s resilient and hopeful outlook.

She describes the “porous and hardy membrane” of rural culture that sustains us.

Here in the underpopulated center of the nation, we resemble the bigger America.

Julianne’s book will tell you why.

 

Richard Oswald is a fourth-generation farmer from Langdon, Missouri. He is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

 

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