Friday, August 18, 1995

Mapping the Farm, by John Hidebrand


A review of Mapping the Farm, by John Hidebrand
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

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