Friday, August 18, 1995

Mapping the Farm, by John Hidebrand

A Review of Mapping the Farm,

by John Hidebrand

Originally published August 18th, 1995,

in The Minnesota Daily’s Nightly Magazine

By John Hidebrand
Knopf, $23

I must admit that when I started reading John Hildebrand’s new book, I was favorably biased, due to the subject. Chronicling four generations of Minnesota farmers (his wife’s family, the O’Neills) from immigration to the Great Depression to the current battle with expanding agribusiness, Mapping the Farm seemed to have all the elements of a great work of nonfiction. It’s generational, political, and very human, but I found something crucial missing in Hildebrand’s writing.

I was hoping for something along the lines of John Dos Passos or James Agee, and frankly Hildebrand just didn’t deliver it. Although the subject is one of the most important in America today, the book’s power sinks under the weight of the author’s leaden prose. This is a shame, because he’s got great material to work with.

At times I found myself fascinated with his family’s individual members, but the book never let me feel the fabric of their collective past. The episodes were so disjointed and rambling that none of it really fit together, denying the reader a chance to make sense of how the O’Neills came to their current crisis.

In a way, this book’s sense of fragmentation helps to serve a point. Never before has solidarity been so crucial for farmers, yet the O’Neills are breaking apart. Hildebrand describes them at the end of the book as a set of couples—no longer a single family. This dissolution may signify the end of the family farm as an American institution.

Although it galls me to say it, the book just wasn’t very effective. Even when I tried to look past its artistic flaws to find the humanity underneath, I was confronted with a sloppy, uneven mess. This story deserves much better treatment. At least there’s still Wendell Berry.

—David Wiley

Friday, August 11, 1995

The Liberty Campaign, by Jonathan Dee

A review of The Liberty Campaign, by Jonathan Dee
Published August 11th, 1995, in The Minnesota Daily’s Nightly Magazine

By Jonathan Dee
Washington Square Press, $10

Newly released in paperback is Jonathan Dee’s 1993 novel, The Liberty Campaign. Like in his first novel, The Lover of History, Dee delves into the meanings, both personal and political, of contemporary history, and with shattering results.

At the tender age of sixty-five, Gene Trowbridge strikes up a bizarre friendship with Ferdinand, a reclusive neighbor who may or may not be in trouble with the law. Having been confronted by a reporter with questions about Ferdinand, Trowbridge finds himself becoming obsessed with his friend’s past, as well as with his own.

As their friendship becomes more intimate, Trowbridge confronts Ferdinand about the reporter’s questions, and immediately both of their worlds are changed. As he reveals the truth (he was a torturer in the U.S.-supported regime in Brazil), Ferdinand slowly opens up a whole new way of thinking for Trowbridge.

What makes this novel especially poignant is that it dares to confront Americans with their own ignorance and complacency. As Trowbridge was working for “the man” (an ad agency), Ferdinand was torturing leftists, and knowledge of this brings up questions about whether or not there is any real difference between the two. They’ve ended up in the same place, so is it possible that Trowbridge could have become the same thing as Ferdinand?

In the end, this theoretical question is overshadowed by the immediacy of whether or not to help Ferdinand escape his persecutors. Facing his own moral obligations to history, Trowbridge must decide if this monster deserves the rights he denied so many others. Dee gives an answer, but ultimately the question goes unresolved, leaving the reader and a book that will resonate long into the future.

—David Wiley

Friday, August 4, 1995

An Unsentimental Education, edited by Molly McQuade

A review of An Unsentimental Education: Writers and Chicago, edited by Molly McQuade
Published August 4th, 1995, in The Minnesota Daily’s Nightly Magazine

Edited by Molly McQuade
University of Chicago, $18.95

Edited by former University of Chicago student Molly McQuade, An Unsentimental Education is a collection of reminiscences by her alma mater’s greatest teachers and students. McQuade interviewed twenty-one U of C luminaries from the past and present, and what results is a fascinating portrait of one of our country’s most fertile intellectual centers.

First, both artistically and alphabetically, is Saul Bellow, who studied sociology at Chicago in the 1930s, returning years later to join its Committee on Social Thought with Hannah Arendt, among others. Bellow’s recollection is more nostalgic than revelatory, but the picture of the Nobel Prize winner staying in “gorgeously sleazy” rooms for three dollars a week is priceless.

Kurt Vonnegut describes himself as “a very fringe character” at the U of C, admitting that the school didn’t think much of him. His master’s thesis was rejected twice, so he found himself in 1947, after seven years of school (he had left Cornell as an undergraduate to go to war), with no degree whatsoever. Since he had no qualifications, he was unable to find a teaching job and was forced to try writing. Go figure.

Probably the most interesting entry is by the amazing Susan Sontag, who graduated from the U of C at eighteen. As a student, she married one of her professors, had a child right after graduation, and then attended graduate school at Harvard.

Like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, these interviews were edited and turned into a narrative, but unfortunately only a few of these writers have Malcolm’s gift for oratory, and most pieces end up reading like unfocused essays. Wisely, Saul Bellow and Robert Coover insisted on presenting their interviews in their original form. This lack of focus isn’t really much of a problem, though, because the book is more personal than formal, and its looseness makes its intellectuality much more accessible.

—David Wiley