To the question posed by Thomas Frank’s bestselling What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004), a journalist responds, much as the Emporia Gazette’s William Allen White did in 1896: “Nothing under the shining sun.”
The Republican River (no, it’s not named after the Party) meanders along the Kansas/Nebraska border, and from the small towns along its banks Boyles (Vile France: Fear, Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese, 2005, etc.) casually reports for an oftentimes clueless coastal America on the state of political and anthropological affairs. He begins by supplying some geography and history, both personal—the family homestead in Superior, Neb.—and regional—snapshots of pre–Civil War “Bleeding Kansas,” the flood of 1935, the sheer scale of the Midwest as a determinant, the orphan trains that brought 200,000 city kids to the plains between 1853 and 1930. But the author mostly focuses on putting right a number of misconceptions commonly held by cultural elites who never tire of telling Midwesterners what they ought to be thinking and doing. Aren’t all the people “out there” moss-backed Republicans who, unaccountably it seems, vote against their own proper interests? No, voting patterns are not at all monolithic—indeed, they are quite sophisticated. Aren’t all the small towns rapidly depopulating? Yes, though not nearly as quickly as most of the eastern seaboard’s major cities. Aren’t the newspapers dying? The regional dailies, sure, but the local weeklies, specializing in hometown news, are doing quite well. Isn’t Wal-Mart an unalloyed disaster for Main Street? No. Aren’t the people religious fanatics? Yes, from the perspective of a reporter for the AP, NPR or the New York Times. No, if you’re a native accustomed to the Midwest tradition of respect for religious belief, where even a proud Democrat can unashamedly attribute the region’s mostly civil politics to Christ-taught values of love and forgiveness and a deep confidence in the ideas that make democracy work. Except for some occasional vitriol infecting his discussion of the educational, judicial and political establishment, Boyles is a good-natured guide, shaking his head not so much in anger but rather in bemusement at the academics, commentators and rabid partisans who get so much of the Midwest so wrong.
A conversational, amusing, instructive look at a landscape too many Americans merely fly over or—if they think of it at all—misunderstand.