Books by James R. Dickenson

Released: March 1, 1995

The High Plains town of McDonald, Kans., population 200 and dropping, is the focus of this affectionate family history, which probes a larger problem: the faltering of America's small rural communities and their close-knit societies. Dickenson, a Washington, D.C., journalist, left McDonald for greener pastures 30 years ago. Returning for his hometown's centennial in 1988, he notes declining population, disappearing businesses, and few economic alternatives. To put this decline in perspective, Dickenson examines the boom-and-bust cycle of farming, from his family's start as Kansas ``sodbusters'' in the 1870s through the farm crisis of the 1980s. Technology is the central source of rural decline: Farmers became so efficient in their quest for higher productivity that ``the technology that made this progress possible...wreaked a drastic change in the support community and social fabric of the area.'' Mechanization and reliance on chemicals and hybrids reduced the manpower required, transforming the base of agriculture from small subsistence farms to large, capital-hungry enterprises. Small rural towns, the traditional support network for surrounding farms, have suffered even as farming thrives, albeit in radically transformed fashion. Dickenson's analyses of small-town culture are marred by tentative bromides (``Religious beliefs fill a profound need in people everywhere and at all times''). He is on firmer ground describing the daily trials and triumphs of farming (especially in relating the primal tension of the wheat harvest), a vocation for which he harbors great respect. Also problematic is the fractured narrative, which suffers from both redundancy and gaps: He introduces Uncle Wayne, editor of the local newspaper, on a half-dozen occasions but doesn't define the High Plains (which compares to Appalachia in terms of isolation and dependence on a single extractive industry) until page 245. An understandably dour but ultimately affirming tribute to the strong will of High Plains people and the economic and cultural importance of American farming. (Map, not seen) (Author tour) Read full book review >