Book review: Rhodes’ ‘Driftless’ explores human condition in rural western Wisconsin

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

From the David Rhodes website:

“As a young man, David Rhodes worked in fields, hospitals, and factories across Iowa, nurturing his love of reading along the way. After receiving an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1971, he published three novels in rapid succession: ‘The Last Fair Deal Going Down’ (Atlantic/Little, Brown, 1972), ‘The Easter House’ (Harper & Row, 1974), and ‘Rock Island Line’ (Harper & Row, 1975). A motorcycle accident in 1976 left him paralyzed from the chest down, which brought a temporary halt (30 years) to his publishing career. In 2008, he returned to publication with ‘Driftless,’ which has been heralded as a critical success and the ‘best work of fiction to come out of the Midwest in many years’ (Chicago Tribune). Rhodes lives with his wife, Edna, in rural Wisconsin (Wonewoc).”

“Driftless” is logically enough set in our Driftless region of Wisconsin. As such, you may recognize much of the setting even with fictitious names. With observations that could have come from the County Line’s Backtalk, Rhodes writes, “… memorializing a once-functioning cheese factory, school, post office, dry goods store, lumber yard, mill, grocery, furniture store, dressmaker, garage, wagon factory, implement dealer and gas station. The town stood in its own shadow of better times when families depended on agriculture for their livelihood, work for exercise, common sense for intelligence, on each other for entertainment, on faith for health …. ”

The plot of “Driftless” has many threads: the plight of farmers, adjustment to the Amish presence, human relationships, a good Samaritan, being an invalid, religion. When July Montgomery finally senses that his wanderlust has run its course, he finds himself in Words, Wisconsin, for no apparent reason. “Driftless” is about his life near a community as described above. But really it is about the people and the lives they live there.

Rhodes is a skilled writer. Among other things, he can capture large ideas in a few well-chosen words. “… old people were routinely discarded into nursing homes to die of institutional cleanliness.” While in some cases you might debate the cleanliness statement, Rhodes’ point of going from your home to a hard-surfaced, sanitized nursing home is clearly captured with “institutional cleanliness.” Rhodes’ character, Violet, speaks harshly, and “discarded” is hardly the appropriate word for sucha difficult decision, but reading the book will put the quotation in proper perspective.

Rhodes writes of a toilet that flushes with “diminished enthusiasm,” a band that has a “narrowly construed sense of rhythm” and a youth group “that has two members if everyone shows up.” “Driftless” is a book that explores the human condition of rural western Wisconsin, in 2008, as only an accomplished author can do.

Rhodes’ “Driftless” is available through your public library.

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