Must a lack of incest, addiction, murder, and shocking secrets guarantee a rocky road to readership for a memoir? Not in the case of Diane Johnson’s “Flyover Lives,’’ where solid Midwestern values seasoned by charm, affection, and lovely writing provide a welcome detour off the tabloid path.
Curious to discover how a worldly writer evolved from small-town ancestors, Johnson, a novelist known for her send-up of Americans in Paris (“Le Divorce,’’ “Le Mariage,’’ “L’Affaire’’), decides to begin her exploration with the prairie women of her family who “didn’t have the leisure to pick up their pens.” She hopes to understand her connection to those pioneers, the pull of home — Moline, Ill. — and the equally strong desire to escape it.
A house party in France ignites the book’s first spark. Americans have no interest in history, a French friend accuses. Though other guests pose the standard queries — how long can a novel take? Does Johnson use a computer? — it’s the questions about her ancestors that stump her. She determines to find out more about her forebears and Moline. “[H]ow indeed could I ever become a writer? We were Default Americans, plump, mild, and Protestant, people whose ancestors had come ashore God knew when and had lost interest in keeping track of the details.”
The gauntlet thrown, Johnson researches family members who joined the vast migration to the Midwest in the 18th and 19th centuries. Through letters, documents, and diaries, she traces marriages, religious conversions, childbearing, and deaths. (Of the nine babies one ancestor delivers, only two survive.) She records the painting, quilting, canning, sewing, candle-making, laundering — chores all undertaken amid hordes of household guests, often with “a dying relative upstairs.” Yet, despite such toil, Johnson sees “happy women leading useful lives.”
She recalls her happy childhood with devoted parents who also lead useful lives. Memories unfurl of football games and dances, her father’s woodworking, her mother’s sewing, Saturday mornings at the library, summers on the lake, stewardess ambitions.
Her many uncles improve her vocabulary, give her a Brownie camera, and an amethyst from India, their only scorn directed toward a hairdresser sister-in-law, who displayed a 3-D rendering of “The Last Supper’’ in her living room, “a personal humiliation that such an error of taste could arise in my family whose walls . . . were hung with slightly amateurish oil paintings and watercolors by grandmothers and aunts — refinements the women in the family thought important.”
At college in Missouri, Johnson wins a month’s internship at Mademoiselle along with the daunting and impeccably pageboyed Sylvia Plath. “She was Literature up a notch from anything that had occurred to me.” Ever the country mouse, Johnson finds New York scary, “especially the gravelly voiced women editors who smoked and looked at the world through narrowed eyes, so unlike the moms of Moline.”
She leaves school to marry, has children, guilty they’re not the “totally absorbing joy” the 1950s demanded. When she finally starts to write, she tells no one because “the testimony of many writers’ families — usually male writers — convinced me it wasn’t good for children to have a writer parent.”
Fears notwithstanding, she builds a career, struggling to gain confidence in her work. As a screenwriter in Los Angeles, she hangs out with Mike Nichols, Volker Schlöndorff, Francis Ford Coppola, James Ivory, watches the filming of “Le Divorce,’’ works with Stanley Kubrick on “The Shining.’’ Delightful anecdotes abound.
Though Johnson portrays her childhood as unremarkable, her adulthood is complicated: post partum depression, a physically abusive husband, an affair with a married man, a yellow sports car she can’t afford, a remarriage, the conflicting claims of children and writing. These she touches on lightly, no headlines or fraught exposition. While her ancestors’ hardships weren’t her own, she acknowledges common bonds.
By the end, because so much lies between the lines, I wanted more. Perhaps I’m one of those Americans the French might disdain as indifferent to history, but — mea culpa — I confess that Johnson’s ancestors were far less compelling to me than Johnson herself. Others may disagree. What’s certain, however, is the absolute pleasure of being in the company of a skilled writer who so eloquently examines the people and geography that shaped her.Mameve Medwed has published five novels; her essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, Gourmet, Washington Post, among others. She can be reached at mameve@mameve medwed.com.