An illuminating trip through “parts of the country generally missed by the media spotlight.”
Between 2013 and 2017, Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows (China Airborne: The Test of China’s Future, 2013, etc.) and his wife, Deborah Fallows (Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language, 2011, etc.), traveled nearly 100,000 miles in their small plane, making two-week stops in 25 cities and shorter visits to another 24. They visited libraries and bars, schools and businesses; talked to politicians, civic leaders, newly arrived refugees, students, social service workers, and others to get a sense of “the backbone and character of the region” and, by extension, of the whole country. Writing with lively curiosity and open minds, the couple have created textured portraits of 29 American cities, from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Eastport, Maine, to Redlands, California. Central to a city’s or region’s success, they discovered, were “the stories people tell themselves” about their “traits and strengths.” Burlington, Vermont, for example, changed its identity from largely a retirement community to a research and technology center where local companies encourage startups. Although the city struggles with drug culture and “tensions between old-family Vermont residents and new arrivals,” civic engagement, one resident said, “is the absolute heart of what keeps the city palpitating.” Although all but one of the states visited voted for Donald Trump in 2016, the authors found no evidence of “the seething fury described by the media.” Instead, they noted “humming, stylish” downtowns—essential for a city’s success—in places like Columbus, Ohio, and Greenville, South Carolina, each the result of efforts by business, civic, and educational organizations. They found innovative schools, like the Mississippi School for Mathematics and the Arts, a public boarding school in Columbus, Mississippi, where students—some of whom grew up in a shack or trailer—were building robots. The authors assert that distancing themselves from national politics, fostering collaboration between government and businesses, and keeping open to outsiders, including immigrants, all contribute to a city’s vitality.
A well-reported, optimistic portrait of America’s future.