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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Book Review: Flyover Lives: A Memoir by Diane Johnson

I read Diane Johnson's novel L'Divorce about fourteen years ago, shortly after I'd moved to New York. I have always been a fan of "chick lit" but I like the variety that is more intelligent, with real problems and a slightly older, more mature protagonist and this book fit the bill. But I never read any of her other books. I knew she had written two follow-ups. I had no idea that she's published a dozen or so books, many of them non-fiction, some academic in nature, and is also an accomplished screenwriter, who wrote the screenplay for The Shining for Stanley Kubrick. Color me impressed.

What I really loved about this memoir thought wasn't the more traditional memoir parts of it, but instead when she dug into her family's past. See, Ms. Johnson lives part-time in Paris, and some French friends made a comment about how can Americans be expected to understand international politics, when we don't even know our own histories. And she admitted that was true. She didn't even know where her family was from. So she returned to the American Midwest, where she grew up in rural Illinois, to investigate who she came from and how those ancestors helped to forge the woman she became. She found old memoirs and letters in Great Aunt's attics and as she retold these stories, history came alive! After her ancestors came over from France (!), they settled in Canada and Michigan and lived in what she could only nicely call shacks, in the middle of no where with no neighbors, no family nearby, no medical help when needed, and sometimes no food. But they survived and eventually they settled in Illinois and Iowa where Diane grew up.

About ten years older than the Baby Boomers, she remembers WWII and her father fought in WWI. She grew up in an idyllic 1940s community where everyone knew everyone, no one locked their doors, and no one judged. The community took care of its less-capable and knew each others' dirty laundry, but kept that information to themselves. Diane ended up thirty, divorced, with four children, in England, trying to write a book (and trying to hide her divorce from her landlord who wouldn't rent to a divorcee.) She led an interesting life, with a happy remarriage and bi-continental living, but it was all the past generations looking down on her from their hard-scrabble lives that I found utterly fascinating. With the popularity of people looking back to find out our families' stories before they disappear, this book should have a broad readership. I loved it.

I got this book gratis from the publisher (thank you!), in exchange for a fair review.

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