December 12, 2013

A novelist traces her pioneering ancestors

By Diane Johnson
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Diane Johnson’s wry new memoir, Flyover Lives, is an absorbing exploration of the people and places that have shaped her. The book begins and ends in France, where the acclaimed novelist (Le Divorce) lives with her husband John half the year. In between, her stories take us to Illinois, California, New York and London, and also back in time, when the footsteps of her ancestors led them to the Midwest.

“No one writes much about the center part of our country, sometimes called the Flyover, or about the modest pioneers who cleared and peopled this region. Yet their Midwestern stories tell us a lot about American history,” Johnson writes in the foreword. “Migration patterns, wars, the larger movements, are after all made up of individual human beings experiencing and sometimes recording their lives.”

In this memoir, Johnson records her own growing up in Moline, Illinois, part of a close family. Her childhood was one that some might call idyllic; she describes it as “lacking in drama.”

Her story becomes more dramatic as she gets older and moves away from Moline—marrying and divorcing young, moving to London under false pretenses, writing for Stanley Kubrick. However, her recent past is just part of the book.

Johnson’s curiosity about her forebears led her to research and discover some of the traces they left behind—letters, journals and photographs, tales handed down over the years. Telling their stories of life in the Midwest makes up a good chunk of this memoir. Johnson relates her family history honestly and compassionately. Some of the stories are funny, others heartbreaking. She dwells mainly on her grandmothers’ experience: getting married, moving to the center of a young country, setting up house, having children and sometimes, as in the case of her grandmother Catharine, burying their children. Catharine buried her three daughters in the space of one week after they died of scarlet fever.

By investigating the lives of her ancestors, Johnson finds that there are no “flyover” lives, and that every person has a story worth telling.

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Flyover Lives

Flyover Lives

By Diane Johnson
ISBN 9780670016402

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