Just as these contradictory stereotypes exist in tandem, Midwesterners’ complaints about being overgeneralized are themselves overgeneralizations. I can cite examples that belie popular media tropes not only because I’m Midwestern but because these counterexamples, too, sometimes appear in the popular media. They’re appearing in this very review. As Christman points out, quoting an unnamed lexicographer, the term “flyover country” is “a stereotype about other people’s stereotypes” — and it’s not the only one. To write about the Midwest is to risk joining a succession of truisms that tread and retread the same ground. In “Midwest Futures,” Christman sidesteps this fate. Rather than try to pin the region to a single argument or narrative, he makes a mosaic out of its multiplicity.
Like a mosaic, and like the Midwest, the book might look deceptively uniform from a distance. Its six chapters are evenly divided into six sections of about 1,000 words, a reference to the fact that the Midwest was surveyed into six-by-six-square-mile grids. But the chapters, which Christman calls “rows,” are held together by loose themes, and the sections, which he calls “plats,” tumble into one another associatively. Political and economic history gives way to analyses of books and movies, which give way to Christman’s personal reflections on life in Michigan, where he lives. You could describe the form as disparate things in similar containers that together create a larger whole, which is pretty close to the way Christman describes his fellow Midwesterners. Thus does the book, like some concrete poetry, take a shape that conveys what it also puts into words: The Midwest of friendly neighbors and the Midwest of benighted racists are, of course, the same place. “One does not disprove the other,” Christman writes. “One is not the underbelly of the other. One will not finally triumph over the other. . . . A species is a bounded set of variations on a template, not an achieved state of being.”
That our moral variations will always be with us (and within us) doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to tip the scales. This is one of the main ends to which Christman selects the historical episodes that compose so many of his plats. In a book that often feels like a gentle and well-wrought sermon — right down to its laugh lines, most of which work — these stories serve as parables that show us what to avoid, what to value and how to get where we (should) want to go.
The conflict they repeatedly dramatize is not between God and Satan but between life and profit-making. (Though for Christian leftists like Christman, these conflicts may sometimes be one and the same.) In the late 18th century, for example, efforts to turn what is now the Midwest into a “fund” to pay off the nation’s debt “seemed to hang on the new government’s ability to clear [Native] life away.” Decades later, with the introduction of commodity futures and wheat grades, the Chicago Board of Trade made grains into “a kind of money,” valuing some variants over others to the extent that biodiversity waned. Over the course of the 20th century, the Midwest became an epicenter of assembly-line factories and industrialized farms that leached life from people, plants and animals as surely as they leached pollutants into our air, soil and water. “Owning and living upon,” Christman observes, “are separate, indeed often opposed, things.”
From row to row and from plat to plat, he alternates examples of Midwestern profiteering with examples of Midwestern living that may guide us in a more positive direction. In 1814, for instance, members of a Christian sect called the Rappites bought land in Indiana, built a town they named Harmony and tried to turn it into a celibate communist utopia. In the 1820s, people escaping slavery began to settle in Brooklyn, Ill., the first black town in America — “founded on the idea, surely as radical in the nineteenth century as communism, that black Americans could be free.” These places may not have become templates for our present, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t influenced us or that they won’t continue to. “A utopia acts as a rudder on the future . . . bending the world ever so slightly more its way,” Christman writes in one of several striking lines that ground abstract concepts in concrete metaphors.
If the trajectory he sketches — land grabs, oppression and environmental destruction occasionally mitigated by idealism — sounds more like the story of the United States than the story of a particular region, that’s not an accident. The Midwest is “a conceptual magpie’s nest, made from scraps of everything” and, perhaps for that reason, is “central to so many of this country’s stories about itself.” It has long connoted normalcy, averageness, representative Americanness. But if there’s anything Christman’s Midwest teaches us, it’s that these qualities are red herrings.
He points out that horror and science fiction, from the 1951 novel “The Puppet Masters” to the contemporary Netflix show “Stranger Things,” have often used the region as “an image of everyday normality that hides a series of evil doubles or stands upon a shadow world of nasty impulses.” But he makes the case that “normality” can also hide goodness. In one of the book’s most moving passages, he posits that the Midwest is seen as “normal” in part because some of it is naturally rich and productive. But rich and productive “is not a normal thing to be,” Christman writes. “That we take such a good place for granted, as though its usefulness for human life were proof of its dullness and interchangeability, allows us to misuse it, and ourselves, and each other, who are marked as boring by having come from this boringly good thing, or marked as threatening because they didn’t. It takes a thousand years for the earth to make three centimeters of topsoil. (Climate change encourages floods, which wash topsoil out to sea.)”
Climate change is, of course, already having its effects. But the Midwest, with its abundant fresh water and its distance from rising seas, is likely to remain habitable for longer than other places will. This should be our impetus, Christman argues, “to begin a long transformation . . . from fund to place; from a speculator’s toy to a crowded but ultimately accommodating home for whoever needs it.” For there are, as he has shown us, many other possible futures.
By Phil Christman
Belt. 154 pp. $26