Growing up in the small river town of Moline, Illinois, Diane Johnson always dreamed of floating down the Mississippi River and venturing off to see the world. Years later, at home in France, a French friend teases her about her Americanness: “Indifference to history. That’s why Americans seem so naïve.”
The j’accuse stays with Johnson. Are Americans indifferent to history? Her own family seemed always to have been in the Midwest. Surely they had gotten there from somewhere? In digging around, she discovers letters and memoirs written by generations of her stalwart pioneer ancestors that testify to more complex and fascinating times than the derisive nickname “the Flyover” gives the region credit for. This is the story of the people who struggled to reach places like Ohio, Iowa, and Illinois two hundred years ago and saw no reason to leave.
Johnson weaves in passages from these cherished records, illuminating the westward journeys shared by so many American families and the bedrock character that enabled them to survive a brutal pioneer period to become the sheltered guardians of Americana in both its best and worst incarnations.
With the acuity and sympathy that her bestselling novels are known for, Johnson captures the magnetic pull of home against our lust for escape and self-invention. Here is the small-town charm of a midwestern childhood as well as the series of adventures that led to her unlikely situation in France, so far from Moline—yet, as her history reveals, the birthplace of her first ancestor to brave the New World. A dazzling meditation on the mysteries of the “wispy but material” family ghosts who shape us, this spellbinding memoir is also a keenly insightful exploration of how we shape ourselves.
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