A hayseed she certainly is not, as is attested to by the great range of her published work — novels, biographies and travel books, not to mention sophisticated book reviews on any number of subjects and the screenplay for “The Shining” — as well as by her long residence in Paris, where her husband, “a professor of medicine with a role in the control of worldwide tuberculosis and other lung diseases,” is based for much of each year. But she does have a deep past, both personal and ancestral, in “the center part of our country, sometimes called the Flyover,” and it is to this past that her friend’s remark inspired her to turn. The result is this book, which its publisher calls a memoir but which, in the end, Johnson herself decides is something else altogether:
“So I suppose this is really a travel book, beginning with the desire of a small midwestern child for adventure, preferably at sea, before the mast. But unlike another book of mine, ‘Natural Opium,’ which tells about going to new places with my husband, John, this one travels back in time, with the excuse that looking at the Midwest of long-departed people and even my own childhood could remind [one] of things people talk about as missing in America today . . . trains, for example, and nice long vacations. Mom-and-pop restaurants!”
True enough, but if that leads you to think that “Flyover Lives” is an exercise in nostalgia, think again. Born in 1934, Johnson is old enough to remember playing “games like Parcheesi and Monopoly and outdoor ones like croquet and touch football,” as well as gathering as a family — she, her younger brother, their father and mother — to listen “to certain radio programs, like ‘The Fred Allen Show.’ ” As it happens, I am only a few years younger than Johnson and can remember that as well as all those other radio programs that both of us loved, Bing Crosby and “The Lone Ranger” and “The Shadow” (from which Johnson took the title of her fine early novel, “The Shadow Knows”). Both of us had peaceful and reasonably happy semi-rural childhoods, hers in the Midwest and mine in the Upper South, and both of us obviously feel that some good things about those days have been lost along with the gains our society has made since then.
But Johnson doesn’t wax sentimental about the good old days and doesn’t shroud her family’s past in the mists of nostalgia. Though her publisher says that this book “will appeal to fans of Bill Bryson, Patricia Hampl, and Annie Dillard,” in fact the book that its central section most reminds me of is William Maxwell’s “Ancestors” (1971), a loving but clear-eyed account of his family’s roots in 19th-century Ohio. Like Maxwell, Johnson managed to get her hands on family documents that bring her ancestors’ westward passage into sharp relief. In particular she found one by her “great-great-grandmother, Catharine Martin, (born 1800), who was living in Chenoa, Illinois, when she wrote a hundred pages in 1876, the centenary of the nation, looking back to her own girlhood, telling some stories that give us a glimpse of what a young woman’s life was like in the 1820s, newly arrived in the strange new territory.”
In brief, a woman’s life in the early-19th-century Midwest was complicated and difficult. “Despite my dislike of ‘Little Women,’ ” Johnson writes, “this book could be partly about the happiness of women like the March girls, happy despite their troubles — happy sewing, making quilts and jam, back in the days when such things were necessary and valued.” But it wasn’t as simple as that: “On the whole subject of women’s work, I would come to have a nuanced view after I found the diaries of my great-grandmothers and saw that though women then had lives full of responsibility and respect, their positions were earned by ceaseless toil and poignant cares, especially the deaths of children, of all sorrows surely the worst.”
It must be just about impossible for a denizen of middle-class 21st-century America to imagine the toil and suffering that Catharine Martin and her counterparts underwent every day: living in crude houses — mere huts when they first settled in Illinois and elsewhere — slaving at open fires to prepare food for their families, and worst of all watching children fall ill and having nothing in their powers to help them: “Within a year of her marriage, with the fated fertility of women then, Catharine had her first baby, and named her Catharine Anne, after herself. They called her Sissie. This baby was followed by Charlotte Augusta in 1830 and Martha Olivia in 1831. When they were one, three, and five years old, all three little girls died in the space of a week or two.” Catharine herself was ill but survived to write many years later: “When I got up, my house was empty, three little prattlers all gone, not one left.”
She had more children, enough of whom survived to continue the family line that eventually produced Diane Johnson, nee Lain, who herself now has four grown children and a brood of grandchildren. She was born and grew up in Moline — “a pleasant place, surrounded by cornfields, I had always longed to get out of” — and “until I began to write these recollections, I may not have realized what a sheltered nineteenth-century world it still was in the 1940s.” People still made things — her father, principal of the local high school, was handy around the house, and her mother made clothing and “was adept and fearless in all crafts” — and “though we were not musical” the family sang together, and young Diane was subjected to violin lessons, at which she did not excel.
There’s much here about this 1940s and ’50s childhood, and if I read it with particular affinity, it’s because my childhood was so similar in so many ways. But Johnson recounts other experiences that few of us can claim, among them prolonged residency in Paris (which she laughingly calls “our hardship post”) and working with a number of distinguished film directors, notably Mike Nichols and Stanley Kubrick, both of whom she liked very much. She comes across as a self-aware but scarcely self-centered person, which makes for a singularly agreeable and appealing book.