The Air Up There

Diane Johnson’s memoir about “flyover” country seems to suffer from altitude sickness.

Illustration by Gustavo Duarte

Where are you from? How does place define a person? When you move, what do you leave behind, and what is impossible to shed? These questions have been on my mind for weeks, ever since my husband and I packed ourselves into a 10-foot U-Haul and drove due west, from New York, through Winter Storm Electra—wheels spinning, houseplants shriveling, cat yowling—to Chicago, our new home.

For my husband, who grew up in the rural countryside outside Champaign–Urbana, the move represents a return to a state he once thought he had left for good. As for me: I may have married a Midwesterner, may be about to give birth to a Midwesterner, may technically be a Midwesterner, now that I’ve secured an Illinois ID. But after a lifetime on the West and East Coasts, I can’t pretend to know what it means to be from the Midwest, which after all struts to its own rhythms, developed over centuries by a distinctive mix of terrain, weather, great migrations, cultural upheaval, historic event.

Who and what gave rise to the Midwest, and what it means to embrace or escape it, are the ostensible concerns of Flyover Lives, by the novelist and critic Diane Johnson. Considering the recent upending of my life, I began it as perhaps one of the most eager and sympathetic readers Johnson could hope to have. The book is billed as a memoir about the “family ghosts who shape us” and an “exploration of how we shape ourselves.” In truth, it’s a hodgepodge heritage tour, an overstuffed scrapbook—part transcription, part drive-by autobiography, part half-baked commentary—padded with a number of essays (on Johnson’s screenwriting career, for example) that have nothing to do with “flyover” anything. “I’m trying,” Johnson told an interviewer about the project a few years ago, to make the essays “fit together in a sort of way that will say something about the Midwest … and the insularity of Americans.” Alas, it’s precisely when she reaches to make her loftier points that the book flames out.

Johnson’s story begins on a promising note. Passing through Provence, she and her husband join a French friend and an assortment of Americans—retired Army generals and their wives—for a day or two of food, wine, and forced conviviality. Johnson’s writing here is suffused with the same sly wit and crisp social analysis that readers of her Franco-American novels (Le DivorceLe MariageL’Affaire) so adore. “Like geishas they worked me,” she says of the wives, whose questions about Johnson’s writing make her “feel fascinating,” even if their “smooth tactical tact” reminds her of her Siamese cats, who “worked in a pair, attacking marauders.” Le mew.

During a conversation about ancestral ties and historical memory, Johnson’s French friend slings a straightforward barb: “Indifference to history. That’s why Americans seem so naive and always invade the wrong countries.” The remark sticks to Johnson like a hex, haunting her. It also provokes her to examine a past she “had always had a slightly uneasy relation to,” “conscious of the scorn that people in more fashionable places felt for the plump, bespectacled, respectable folks” of the Midwest.

Diane Johnson
Diane Johnson.

Photo by Miriam Berkley

Johnson grew up the daughter of teachers in Moline, Ill., “a pleasant place, surrounded by cornfields.” Hers was a mild and comfortable childhood—rope swings, The Lone Ranger on the radio, golf lessons and dancing classes, Parcheesi, Monopoly, croquet. “An unusually dense and myopic child, I had been unaware that Moline had Hispanic immigrants, tracks, boxcars in which people lived,” she recalls. “We could have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell illustration.”

Still, Johnson had inklings of a broader, more glamorous world. A taste of Roquefort cheese suggests “vistas of possibility.” The novels of Dumas and Melville inspire dreams of conquering the high seas. In her teens, she yearns to become an airline “stewie” but (ah, fate) is deemed too short. While at Stephens College she wins an essay contest and becomes one of 20 girls chosen to work for a month at Mademoiselle, in New York. She finds the city “scary,” however, and limps home in defeat. “This was still the period,” she reminds us, “when women were encouraged to be educated, bright, and informed, but only in order to be better … wives and mothers.” So she marries her boyfriend. Defers her education. Has four children. Stews in vague dissatisfaction. At last, once her children are in school, she return to her own studies, taking literature courses that open doors and pave the way for her emancipation.

It’s an origin story that could have made for a captivating narrative about the life of a blossoming artist. But Johnson’s book is largely devoid of what we want from well-crafted memoir: unsparing candor, emotional honesty, artful storytelling, a healthy sense of context, an aversion to sentimentality, an interrogation of what one knows, or thinks one knows, about one’s history and oneself.

Over and over again Johnson teeters on the edge of an idea, only to retreat to the cozy screened-in porch of benign reminiscence. She devotes just three paragraphs to her divorce, though the decision to unshackle herself from her first husband and the burden of wifely obligation in no uncertain terms changed her life. Johnson alludes to “dark” times, and one presumes there must have been struggle—emotional, financial, existential. But on the page, she elects to skim over unpleasantness rather than stir the pot. This may be a genteel way to move through life, but it makes for exasperating reading.

Things improve, a little, when Johnson hands the storytelling duties to her ancestors. She is beguiled by the testimonies of “long-departed great-grandmothers, simple stories but all the rarer because the lives of prairie women have usually been lost.” We hear from her great-great-great-grandmother Anne, a pious woman who loathes her neighbors (“a dreadful loose sect of people”), and from her great-great-grandmother Catharine, whose letters and memoirs detail the harsh realities of pioneer life: repeated uprootings, desolate landscapes, rampant disease, premature deaths.

Intermittently, Johnson muses on the topic of women and work, to muddled effect. She writes of coming to have a “nuanced view” of her great-grandmothers’ daily toil: All that canning, cooking, washing, knitting—it really was respectable! The lives of her mother and aunts were likewise consumed by “making things”; they were “serene with their quilting and watercolors,” seemed to be “happy women leading useful lives, … spared the discontent that Betty Friedan would later discuss people having.”

Then again: “Maybe none of them was ever happy,” Johnson writes. “Maybe life in general was not happy then, though I think, maybe, that I am happy, in general, and lucky as well, and I hope this is what most people end up thinking.” This is not an act of discovery. It’s a reinforcing of pretty myth. Which raises a question: Has Johnson delved into history in a true quest for understanding, or has she merely exploited her family’s stories to quell the insecurities aroused by the taunts of her French friend?

Perhaps most maddening is Johnson’s habit of projecting her family’s narrow experience onto a broader American “we.” In the world of this book, “we” are people (it’s safe to say white people) with roots in the “Old World” (i.e., Europe) who moved from the East westward, found a place to roost, and became farmers, doctors, teachers, ministers. These are “still the usual paths in our family,” she writes, “as if Americans”—note the jump—“were stuck in hereditary castes.” You could call this a line-level slip, a lazy imprecision. But when she also writes that California, one of her adopted homes, “has never felt as much like America as Illinois does,” and that her own children, “California kids,” have no sense of “family history, roots, America,” this, to me, reveals a greater defect: a myopia that, despite Johnson’s efforts to renounce it, persists.

Consider: I was a Californian before I became a wannabe Midwesterner. My mother grew up in California but was born in Utah. Her ancestors came mostly from Germany and Ireland, passed through Canada to the United States, and, in some cases, became Mormons. A headstrong great-grandmother, disapproving of plural marriage, broke from the Mormon Church. By the time my mother came along, the family didn’t much go in for religion. But she, a California kid, did learn to sew and crochet. My father was born and raised in the rural Philippines and worked in Vietnam during the war before landing in San Francisco. He has no American ancestors—his people are Filipino and Chinese, and in his, my, our blood there are surely traces of the Philippines’ Spanish colonizers (although no one seems to know for sure, genealogical record-keeping in the old jungle barrio being not quite up to Mormon standards). But he is an American, having attained citizenship decades ago. I was born in San Francisco and raised in the suburbs and have lived for periods in San Francisco, both Washingtons, New York, Massachusetts, and now Illinois. In elementary school pictures, mine is one of just two or three brown faces grinning out from a sea of whiteness. Like Johnson’s family, mine was far from rich, but we had enough. I had a swing set and dancing lessons, played Parcheesi and Monopoly (but not croquet). I didn’t can or knit, but I baked cookies and learned to cross-stitch. I moved out of the house as soon as I could, at age 16.

All of which is to say: That was my America—different from Johnson’s in several respects but in other ways very much the same, no “more” or “less” authentic an experience than the one she waxes nostalgic for when she writes of Moline. Johnson the sheltered child, blind to the difference around her, had the excuse of youth. That her vision of the Midwest, of America, remains so limited makes me wonder: How far has she traveled, really?

Toward the end, Johnson declares she has journeyed “back in time, with the excuse that looking at the Midwest of long-departed people and even my own childhood could remind of things people talk about as being missing in America today, and help remedy our apparent inability to learn from other cultures that might be doing things that if we did them too would restore the charm and goodness of our own society—trains, for example, and nice long vacations.” If you can get past this sentence’s tortured construction, you can see its deeper flaws, indicative of the muddy logic so fatal to this book. Charm. Trains. Long vacations. Sweet, yes, but vestiges of the kind of world Johnson claims to have found so stifling as a child. If we are to believe she has spent her entire life trying to bust out of the Norman Rockwell painting, how does she arrive at the notion that the remedy for what ails America is to cram it back into the frame?

Seeking to fix, or simply comprehend, America, Johnson might have begun by scrutinizing her own rhetoric, and looked harder at the actual country. Not the perceived American idyll of her childhood, nor the anodyne America of her imaginings, but the wild, diverse, complex America that stretches beyond her own experience. That America exists today in “flyover” territory, just as it did during her childhood and the lifetimes of her great-great grandparents. It’s an untidy country, a fascinating mess. Something that Johnson, flying over it all, somehow manages to miss.

Flyover Lives by Diane Johnson. Viking.

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