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 passages from these cherished records into her own pages, 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.
©2014 Diane Johnson (P)2013 Brilliance Audio, all rights reserved. Recorded by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. Portions of this book appeared in different form as “The Generals” in National Post (Toronto), “The Writing Life” in The Washington Post, “Stanley Kubrick: 1928– 1999” in The New York Review of Books, and “A Passion for Cars—Just Don’t Make Her Drive Them” in The New York Times.
"Suzanne Toren performs this memoir with sensitivity to its shifts from historical context to vibrant characterizations. She has a flair for verbally depicting the mundane of the Midwest juxtaposed against the French aristocracy and upper-crust society. Toren delivers the charming narrative with humor, grace, and lively vocalizations." (AudioFile)
Although I enjoyed Johnson's memoir, I was a little disappointed. The first chapter sets up the question of Americans' attitudes towards history and and their family line, but after tracing her own, Johnson never draws any conclusions. I just did not see the connection the New Yorker did between her "cheerful pragmatism and unsparing work ethic" and her pioneer ancestors. So for me the book was a collection of personal recollections and interesting reconstructions of her ancestors lives, but not a cohesive work that connects them all. It did not surprise me to hear at the end that some parts of the book had been previously published as separate pieces.
Narrator puts on an annoyingly affected snobbish accent, totally unnecessary in this book and it kind of ruined the pleasure of an otherwise good book.
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