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Stories in Place: A Midwest Syllabus




I've been thinking about what it means to belong, specifically in the midwest, for years. I think I could probably teach a class on the topic. Here's what I'd put on my syllabus. I'd recommend them even if you're not cosplaying higher ed.


Dancing with Welk: Music, Memory, and Prairie Troubadours by Christopher Vondracek


This book feels honest. It’s hard to write about a place that so easily becomes the butt of jokes. To write without treacle-y sentimentality and without harshness towards an isolated place. This book is about searching–for some kind of meaning or vocation or belonging. For wondering if you can make it, for not knowing who you are exactly, for following the thread of a publicly-loved but critically panned musician who specialized in accordions. 

It’s about all kinds of things, and it feels familiar. 


In the small town-iest twist, this one happens to be written by someone from my own hometown. I'm pretty sure my dad painted his parents' house.

An excerpt, one of many starred and underlined passages:

“As I listened, about how writing about rural South Dakota means being authentic, about roots, about how you can’t just have some east coast carpet-baggers coming in and pointing at our taxidermy on the walls of the dentist office and calling that an observation, I felt my whole body go rigid. One of the session leaders got chills in the back of his neck when he proclaimed, “I saw the band march past last week and only thirteen kids, maybe three lines, a banged-up snare drum, no one was in step, and a feral cat following behind, but, darnit, we had a band.” And I thought of my dad, who taught at a small school, but who also asked kids to wear clean spats, who asked that kids shine their horns, who asked that kids stay in line, and march in step, tighten the snare, keep dents out of the tuba, even with the school soon closing after the farm crisis, even with the ceiling tiles leaking. “A tuba’s the price of a good used car,” he said to guffaws. “I’m serious.” Sure, as a rural child, I knew the slam of the locker on the weekend when the gun show took over our school, when ten thousand firearms and arrowheads and collectible coins assembled in our hallways and gymnasium. But I also knew how my classmates urged me to play the piano in the gymnasiums in the morning, how sometimes our middle school choir teacher, to quiet the class, would send me to the front to hear the rubbery bass hand of Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus & Lucy.”

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography

By Kathleen Norris


Read this one for the observations about insiders and outsiders in tight-knit communities.


I held this one close as I wrote a senior project on belonging in my final semester of undergrad. My project advisor, Dr. Jenny Bangsund, recommended it as one that had helped her understanding of the place when she moved to the area.


"It is a trusim that outsiders, often professionals with no family ties, are never fully accepted into a rural or small-town community. Such communities are impenetrable for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the most important stories are never spoken of; the local history mentality has worn down their rough edges, or placed them safely out of sight, out of mind. To learn the truth about the web of close-knit families that make up an isolated small town on the Plains, one must look back some years, to the men and women of the homesteading and early merchant generation. By now they've mostly been mythololgized into the stern, hard-working papa and the overworked-mother-who-never-complained, all their passions and complexities smoothed over. But many of these people, the women especially, had an intense love/hate relationship with the Plains that lives on in their children."


The Peace of Wild Things

by Wendell Berry


At this point, so many people I enjoy, admire, or love are fans of Wendell Berry that I've been forced to pay attention! Poems were my way in, and are still my favorite, but I like his essays, too. There's a lot in here about the dignity of sticking to a place and stewarding it. And about the nourishing ways we get tied together in community.

A small place never feels unworthy, in Berry's world. Repair is valued work, and doing it matters, no matter what rages outside your small plot.


XXII. (from Sabbath Poems) There is a day when the road neither comes nor goes, and the way is not a way but a place

Let's throw in an essay, too.


from Conservation is Good Work:

"The concepts and insights of the ecologists are of great usefulness in our predicament, and we can hardly escape the need to speak of "ecology" and "ecosystems." But the terms themselves are culturally sterile. They come from the juiceless, abstract intellectuality of the universities which was invented to disconnect, displace, and disembody the mind. The real names of the environment are the names of rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges, and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes, roads, creatures and people. And the real name of our connection to this everywhere different and differently named earth is "work." We are connected by work even to the places where we don't work, for all places are connected; it is clear by now that we cannot exempt one place from our ruin of another. The name of our proper connection to the earth is "good work," for good work involves much giving of honor."

I'd pair the Conservation essay with Jenny Odell's How to Do Nothing. Odell's book leans in to using ecological terms, the same ones that Berry describes as 'culturally sterile.' Odell writes about getting outside of the social media tension loop, which plays nicely with Berry's monklike refusal to adopt new technology. Their differing approaches and underlying philosophies have an interesting friction that would make for lively class discussion. (or a book club reading--anyone??)


Boom Town

by Sam Anderson


Wildly funny, engaging, and surprising.

This one is assigned as much because it's a treat to read as for the ways it peels back the intense ways people morph their place or are themselves warped by it. You have self-serving city officials, basketball players borrowed from other hometowns, diligent weathermen, rockstars that never moved to LA, and a perfect essay about James Harden's beard.


It's a brilliant picture of how any place is interesting when you (or, in this case, a brilliant journalist) pay close attention. That's at the forefront of my mind in any midwest discussion. Pay attention to your place.


From Boom Town:

"The city conducts itself, whenever possible, like a hiker threatened by a bear in the woods, hysterically exaggerating its size."

"Bring the young people back," he had said. "Young people are like salt and pepper. They cause trouble, yes, but they also bring excitement." Young people, however, are not spices that sit around waiting on racks. They are not folding chairs. They are sentient and unruly, and they tend to be drawn to specific stimuli: change, danger, glory, and--above all--other young people. All those things were now absent from Oklahoma City."

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