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When Carol Bly arrived in Madison, Minnesota, some 25 years ago she carried with her a romantic view of rural life: ""How marvelous to think of night on this gigantic prairie--all the men and women making love in their safe houses guarded by the gloomy groves."" But her critical intelligence and keen moral sense soon told her better. First to fall under her scrutiny in these ""letters""--brief essays for the Minnesota Monthly--are her neighbors, residents of what Scott Fitzgerald termed ""the lost Swede towns,"" people who so resist feeling and thinking that their major response to Watergate was, ""Well. . . it's just, well, that Watergate sure is something."" For such stultifying blandness, Bly blames the prevailing ""nicenesscum-avarice"" ethic, the abdication of responsibility by the local leadership, and also lack of interest in the heartland on the part of the nation's intellectuals. ""Nobody wants to help our 'Swede' to wake up."" Not even the young, it turns out, who come to Minnesota to live their ""private lives of some delicacy""--and confine their political activity to arguing with their fathers over stone-ground whole grain. ""Is dad a big enough dragon to conquer?"" Bly sharply asks them, suggesting that they turn their attention instead toward cooperation with local merchants and officials. On the cultural front, too, she sees the locals short-changed: ""The people are, as they ever were, at the point of starvation for excellence."" And, ultimately, it is moral excellence--or the lack of it--that concerns her: children never forced to demand the best from themselves, who ""develop neither stamina about criticism nor the imagination to picture to themselves gigantic praise if they excel""; adults, overwhelmed by the deadening presence of the extended family, whose only time for moral reflection comes during the tremendous snowstorms that cut them off from civilization. Bly, worried about our ""rotting national culture"" and Minnesota's place in it, proposes that small communities gather once a year to name six individuals who have served the nation. ""The value in deliberate, yearly praise of public figures would lie in enabling rural people to participate in morality, not just locally at the fair stand, but nationally, and to relate to serious issues."" Through opening up discussion of every sort, through demanding excellence in every activity, Bly would hope to reinstill political and moral fiber in her Swede towns and the region: hard work indeed, but better than baking bread. The moral landscape, accurately painted, with feeling.

Pub Date: April 29th, 1981
ISBN: 0816633223
Publisher: Harper & Row