Pushcart XLII: Meghan O’Gieblyn, “Dispatch from Flyover Country” (nonfiction) from Threepenny Review, Summer 2016

The Midwest is a somewhat slippery notion. It is a region whose existence—whose very name—has always been contingent upon the more fixed and concrete notion of the West. Historically, these interior states were less a destination than a corridor, a gateway that funneled travelers from the east into the vast expanse of the frontier. The great industrial cities of this region—Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis—were built as “hubs,” places where the rivers and the railroads met, where all the goods of the prairie accumulated before being shipped to the exterior states. Today, coastal residents stop here only to change planes, a fact that has solidified our identity as a place to be passed over. To be fair, people who live here seem to prefer it this way. Gift shops along the shores of the Great Lakes sell T-shirts bearing the logo Flyover Living. For a long time, the unofficial nickname for the state of Indiana was “Crossroads of America.” Each time my family passed the state line, my sisters and I would mock its odd, anti-touristic logic (“Nothing to see here, folks!”).

Complete story available online at Threepenny Review

I have a lot of trouble with the notion of “flyover states”. It seems to me most of the US is a big flyover zone to New York and Washington. So let’s stick with “midwestern” since that seems more appropriate to the article anyway.

O’Gieblyn tells not just of her relatively recent life in Michigan, but compares it with her previous residence of Madison, Wisconsin, “the Berkeley of the midwest”, one of the “cities that lie within the coordinates of the region but do not technically belong there”. Then she mixes in some religion, courtesy of the remnants of a Bible camp that draws in believers every Summer.

I can understand the “anti-touristic logic” she mentions above. There’s a lot of that where I live, an area that gets a significant influx of tourists, hence income, in summer. Yet there’s a definite attitude of who’s local and who isn’t that goes deeper than “winter people”. I’ve lived here over 20 years, but will never be a Mainer because I wasn’t born here. By the way, notice on the map above: most of Maine doesn’t even get flown over.

Whether we call ourselves midwesterners or Californians or North Carolinians or whatever, it’s a matter of identity.

On Saturday nights, the camp hosts a concert, and my husband and I occasionally walk down to the Tabernacle to listen to whatever band has been bused in from Nashville. Neither of us is a believer, but we enjoy the music. The bands favor gospel standards, a blend of highlands ballads and Gaither-style revivalism. The older generation here includes a contingent of retired missionaries. Many of them are widows, women who spent their youth carrying the gospel to the Philippines or the interior of Ecuador, and after the service they smile faintly at me as they pass by our pew, perhaps sensing a family resemblance. Occasionally, one of them will grip my forearm and say, “Tell me who you are.” The response to this question is “I’m Colleen’s daughter.” Or, if that fails to register: “I’m Paul and Marilyn’s granddaughter.” It is unnerving to identify oneself in this way. My husband once noted that it harkens back to the origins of surnames, to the clans of feudal times who identified villagers by patronymic epithets. John’s son became Johnson, etcetera. To do so now is to see all the things that constitute a modern identity—all your quirks and accomplishments—rendered obsolete.

I have to shake my head when I hear for calls of ending “identity politics”. People are all about identity. Maybe the key to the Midwest is this idea of family identity, of stability. To some of us this feels like security; for others, it feels like a life sentence. For those of us whose families have scattered, other forms of identity fill in. We find new ways of creating social bonds. Just because we don’t share bloodlines doesn’t mean we can’t feel loyalty, trust, and reciprocity with others who share our identity. And those who enjoy one form of identity fear those who don’t share it, along with a natural resentment of those who would disparage it.

O’Gieblyn uses a fascinating conceit to structure the piece: smoke from the California wildfires moved across the midwest, changing the sunsets, including those in Michigan. She likens this to the winds of change that bubble up in places that don’t seem to have a lot to do with the neighborhood, be it new technology or ideas. It’s something from elsewhere. From away, as we say in Maine (or, as real cradle-to-grave Mainers, do). It seems ominous, unpleasant. And it generally clears out after a while. Real change happens slowly in flyover zones.

And this may be the point of the article published in 2016, the Year of the Flyover Voter. While some of us feel like we’re being yanked back to a past we thought we left behind, maybe, for some, it just seems like the sunsets are back to normal. That’s a divide far harder to overcome than geography. We could do it – we could heal, see each other not as threats but as interlocking parts of a whole, each valuable in our own right – but it seems there’s more profit, more power, in exploiting it.

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