Tales from the Heartland | The Reader’s Shelf, August 2013

Whether it is your home, where your heart is, or just somewhere between the East and West coasts, the Midwest and its folk and physical landscapes take center stage in this mix of fiction, memoir, and journalism.

Ray Bradbury ushers us to a nostalgic, whimsical time and place in ­Dandelion Wine (Morrow. 1999. ISBN 9780380977260. $18.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062242273). It is the summer of 1928, and 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding awakens in Green Town, IL, with a nagging feeling that his life is about to change. For the first time, Douglas realizes that he is, in fact, alive—and mortal. What follows is an utterly charming account of Douglas’s summer and its tastes, feels, and sounds. There is the lime-vanilla ice cream from the downtown drugstore, an evening respite on a porch swing in the sweltering heat, and the clanking of Jonas’s junk wagon making the neighborhood rounds.

In her poignant The Orchard (Grand Central. 2012. ISBN 9780446584685. pap. $12.99; ebk. ISBN 9781455505562), ­Theresa Weir meets Adrian Curtis, the gorgeous, enigmatic heir to the Curtis apple orchard, while she tends bar for her uncle near Burlington, IA. They fall in love and are married within three months. Despite unwelcoming in-laws, Weir builds a family and grows to love the land upon which they live. Her world is shattered, however, when the effects of the toxic chemicals used to produce grocery store–perfect apples begin to emerge. Weir’s honest self-portrait reveals much about the complex nature of love, our modern relationship with the natural environment, and life’s unpredictability.

Tim O’Brien’s haunting psychological mystery, In the Lake of the Woods (Mariner: Houghton Harcourt. 2006. ISBN 9780618709861. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9780547527048), shuttles readers to Minnesota’s northernmost limits. John and Kathy Wade, a couple once rising to prominence, are under siege. Battered by the fallout from a political scandal, they withdraw to the secluded and lush Lake of the Woods for a much-needed reprieve. While promises of love and renewal permeate the day, sleeplessness and nightmares haunt the night—and then Kathy vanishes. O’Brien explores the murkier depths of the human psyche and keeps readers engrossed.

Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town (Bloomsbury USA. 2010. ISBN 9781608192076. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781608191567) explores the devastating impact of crystal methamphetamine on Oelwein, IA, and the town’s courageous effort to rebuild a once vibrant farming community. Reding introduces the reader to meth addicts, dealers, and civic leaders, revealing the deleterious psychological, social, and economic effects of this highly addictive “all-American” drug. Through Reding’s sensitive portrayal, readers come to understand the magnitude of meth’s insidiousness.

Newcomers Alice and Howard Goodwin and their two daughters are learning how to navigate small-town culture and customs in Jane Hamilton’s novel A Map of the World (Anchor: Doubleday. ISBN 9780385720106. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780307764065). One morning on their dairy farm, a single moment of inattention leads to the tragic drowning of a neighbor’s young child in the farm pond. A devastated Alice falls into a deep depression, which only worsens when she unwittingly admits to child abuse at the local school where she works as a nurse. The resulting court case threatens to tear her family apart. Hamilton’s vivid prose and complex characterization illuminate the Goodwins’ struggle for understanding, forgiveness, and perseverance in the face of unthinkable tragedy.

In The Prize Winner from Defiance, Ohio (S. & S. 2005. ISBN 9780743273930. pap. $22.95; ebk. ISBN 9780743217279), Terry Ryan recounts how her mom, ­Evelyn, kept the family clothed, fed, and sheltered by submitting snappy jingles and spot-on poetry to the many contests that predominated the 1950s and early 1960s. Evelyn expertly churned out entries while managing the chaos of her ten children and the explosive temper of her alcoholic husband. Ryan’s memoir is a heartwarming tribute to her mother’s enormous strength of spirit, wicked sense of humor, and unfailing ­resourcefulness.

Wisconsin native Michael Perry serves up humorous, truth-bearing observations about life and love over the course of a year as he remodels his 1951 International Harvester truck and falls in love with the “girl next door.” One need not be an auto enthusiast to appreciate Truck, A Love Story (Harper: HarperCollins. 2006. ISBN 9780060571177. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9780061850325), as encounters with colorful neighbors and insights into singles cookery make for an entertaining read.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net