Driftless (Rhodes)

David Rhodes, 2009
Milkweed Editions
448 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781571310682

Rhodes returns to the midwestern landscape he knows so well, offering a fascinating and entirely unsentimental portrait of a town apparently left behind by the march of time.

Home to a few hundred people yet absent from state maps, Words, Wisconsin, comes richly to life by way of an extraordinary cast of characters. Among them, a middle-aged couple guards the family farm from the mendacious schemes of their milk co-operative; a lifelong paraplegic suddenly regains the use of her legs, only to find herself crippled by fury at her sister and caretaker.

A woman of conflicting impulses and pastor of the local Friends church stumbles upon an enlightenment she never expected; a cantankerous retiree discovers a cougar living in his haymow, haunting him like a childhood memory; and, finally, a former drifter forever alters the ties that bind a community together.

At once intimate and funny, wise and generous, Driftless is an unforgettable story of contemporary life in rural America. (From the publisher.)

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Author Bio
Raised—outside Des Moines, Iowa, USA
Education—B.A., Marlboro College; M.F.A., Iowa
   Writers' Workshop
Currently—lives in Wonewoc, Wisconsin

David Rhodes is an American novelist. He has published five books—Jewelweed in 2013 and before that Driftless in 2008. Both books, along with Rock Island Line before them, take place in the fictional small town of Word, Wisconsin.

Rhodes grew up outside Des Moines, Iowa. As a young man, he worked in fields, hospitals, and factories across the state. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Marlboro College in 1969 and a Master of Fine Arts degree from The Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1971. Soon after, he published three acclaimed novels: The Last Fair Deal Going Down (1972), The Easter House (1974), and Rock Island Line (1975).

In 1976, a motorcycle accident left Rhodes partially paralyzed. In 2008, he returned to the literary scene with Driftless, a novel hailed as “the best work of fiction to come out of the Midwest in many years” (Alan Cheuse). He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2010, to support the writing of Jewelweed, published three years later.

Rhodes lives with his wife, Edna, in rural Wonewoc, Wisconsin. (Adapted from the pubisher and Wikipedia. Retrieved 6/4/2013.)

Book Reviews
[Driftless] presents a series of portraits that resemble Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology in their vividness and in the cumulative picture they create of village life. Each of these stories glimmers.
New Yorker

Driftless is a fast-moving story about small town life with characters that seem to have walked off the pages of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology.
Wall Street Journal

A wry and generous book. Driftless shares a rhythm with the farming community it documents, and its reflective pace is well-suited to characters who are far more comfortable with hard work than words. (Best Novels of 2008)
Christian Science Monitor

Rhodes consciously avoids drama to deliver a portrait of a real rural America as singular, beautiful and foreign as anywhere else.
Philadelphia City Paper

Now, after what had to have been years of effort beyond the usual struggle of trying to make a good novel, we get [Rhodes’s] fourth, and, I have to shout it out, finest book yet. Driftless is the best work of fiction to come out of the Midwest in many years.
Chicago Tribune

A symphonic paean to the stillness that can be found in certain areas of the Midwest, The writing in Driftless is beautiful and surprising throughout, [and] it’s this poetic pointillism that originally made Rhodes famous.
Minneapolis Star Tribune

A profound and enduring paean to rural America. Radiant in its prose and deep in its quiet understanding of human needs.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Comprised of a large number of short chapters, the novel opens with a prologue reminiscent of Steinbeck’s beautiful tribute to the Salinas Valley in the opening of East of Eden, with a little touch of Michener’s prologue to his novel Hawaii. The book moves at a stately pace as it offers deep philosophy and meditative asides about life in Words, Wisconsin, in the Driftless zone, which is to say, about life on earth.
NPR - All Things Considered

After a 30-year absence from publishing due to a motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed, Rhodes is back with a novel featuring July Montgomery, the hero of his 1975 novel, Rock Island Line, which movingly involves him with the fates of several characters who live in the small town of Words, Wis.... It takes a while for all these stories to kick in, but once they do, Rhodes shows he still knows how to keep readers riveted.... [T]the result is a novel that is as affecting as it is pleasantly overstuffed.
Publishers Weekly

[S]et in a rural area of Wisconsin so remote and forgotten that it's left off the map. Most of the residents have chosen to be isolated from the world around them and one another. Nevertheless, their concerns—spirituality, family, love, and desire—are global and universal.... The characters and their struggles come vibrantly alive, though Rhodes's didactic authorial voice at times overwhelms the narrative and seeps into the dialog. —Christine DeZelar-Tiedman
Library Journal

(Starred review.) By the end of the darkly rhapsodic novel Rock Island Line (1975), July Montgomery has suffered enough tragedies for several cursed lifetimes even though he is only 22. His creator, on the other hand, was riding high as each of his three novels met with acclaim. But Rhodes was about to face his own season of loss. Now, in a triumphant return after 30 years...Rhodes picks up the thread of July’s life with deepened powers.... Encompassing and incisive, comedic and profound, Driftless is a radiant novel of community and courage. —Donna Seaman

Rhodes's first novel in more than 30 years (Rock Island Line, 1975, etc.) provides a welcome antidote to overheated urban fiction.... Life is slow and rural; it's farm country, and locals care about the rhythms of the seasons, their roots in the community and each other. All is not well, however, when the milk cooperative tries to increase its profit margins at the expense of honest farmers.... A quiet novel of depth and simplicity.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. The prologue describes the geography of the region in which Driftless takes place, and the novel’s title is taken from the name of the area. How does the Driftless Region, which Rhodes describes as “singularly unrefined...in its hilly, primitive form,” influence the events of the book?

2. Words, Wisconsin, is a tiny town, not even located on maps of the region. How important is the rural setting of Driftless? How would the book be different if it were set in a city, or even in nearby Grange?

3. In many ways, Driftless seems to be a novel of oppositions—between the dairy corporation and the farmers, the Amish and the other residents, or a caregiver and a caretaker. What are some of the other oppositions in the book?

4. When July first arrives on the outskirts of Words, he observes that “the dead forever change the living.” How does this assertion relate to July’s experience? Is a statement like this more true in a small town like Words?

5. During Winnie’s epiphany, she realizes that “boundaries did not exist. Where she left off and something else began could not be established.” Is this notion and/or experience of unity displayed elsewhere in the book?

6. Early in the book, Winnie is told that “religion is irrelevant to the modern world.” Do you agree? In this book, is religion a source for wisdom, naïveté, or a combination of the two?

7. Both Winnie and Gail are described as being “chosen”—Winnie through her epiphany; Gail because of the song she writes. What does the parallel between these two characters tell you about them? Are there other characters who are similarly paired?

8. Driftless is a collection of stories from many different characters. Do you think any one of the characters is particularly important or central? What is the effect of having many speakers narrate the story?

9. Grahm is forced to trust Cora’s instincts when they lose their children in the snowstorm. In what way does that decision influence the rest of their story? Are there other characters who must trust in something beyond their control?

10. Words is described as a town “attached more firmly to the past than to the present.” Some of the inhabitants of Words do seem firmly rooted in their history, but many of them also seem to be escaping their past. What role does the past play in Driftless?

11. Words, Wisconsin, is said to be named for Elias Words, the explorer who founded the town. Yet the name Words may also be metaphorical. What role does language play in the book? Which characters are good with words, and which are not? How does this affect their stories?

12. Rusty’s attitudes toward the Amish seem out of line with his own neighbors’ attitudes. Are his concerns justified? If Rusty’s attitude has changed by the end of the novel, to what would you attribute that change?

13. In this book, corporations seem to be corrupt, and the government is little help. The most radical response to this problem is Moe Ridge’s militia. His speech at the end of the book convinces some, but not all, of the characters to join his cause. What do you think of Moe?

14. The cougar July spots at the beginning of the book is an unfamiliar presence to the residents of Words. Are there other external forces facing Words? What do you think the future holds for the town?

15. After his death, revelations about July lead some of his friends to suspect that they didn’t really know him, and yet a number of characters considered July a good friend. In retrospect, was July a good friend to the other characters in the novel?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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