Flyover Lives by Diane Johnson, review by Carl Caton
Kansas lies in the heart of what some refer to as “flyover country”, a derisive term for the vast geography that exists between the cultural centers on either coast, an expanse that many prefer simply to fly over on their way to somewhere more exciting. Novelist Diane Johnson has adapted the idea to a new memoir about living in and leaving flyover country.
Flyover Lives is mostly a response to a comment made to Johnson at a snobbish house party in France denigrating American's indifference to history, including our own. Smarting from the remark, and bolstered later by a discovered trove of letters from her ancestors descended from European immigrants who eventually settled in Illinois, Johnson has produced a somewhat odd and fragmented memoir of her early life in Moline, Illinois, along with a cobbled together story of her forbears as they moved from France to Quebec and eventually to the American Great Lakes region.
Her book will appeal to many who share such an ancestry, with family (like mine) who moved from one area to another seeking something better than what they had, and who in concert with numerous others populated the midwest in the early 1800s and beyond. Johnson's family is similar to many others, but different in leaving a written record that allows a story to be reconstructed, at least partially.
The strength of Johnson's memoir lies in her description of her ancestor's lives and how that history shaped her own. Older baby boomers will especially relate to her memories of her own childhood and coming of age in middle America in the 1930s and 1940s, and the beginnings of her career in the early 1950s. Like many others, she was eager to escape her dull and limited life, realizing only much later what she had given up.
Had she limited the book to her main idea, Flyover Lives would be a strong and coherent book. However, the book is marred by her frequent digressions to the episode in France and especially by a chapter about her Hollywood screen writing experiences . The chapter, full of name-dropping anecdotes better suited to People Magazine, is a jarring interruption in an otherwise engaging memoir. My advice is to read Flyover Lives but skip that chapter.