Thursday, April 14, 2011
Henry Ford's nostalgic vision of small American towns populated by people who work at local factories where they earn enough money to purchase the products they create and enough leisure time to enjoy a pastoral life has given way to the sad reality of contemporary American life depicted in Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town by Nick Reding. Yet it is a reality we as a nation are either unaware of or unwilling to face.
Journalist and native Midwesterner Reding spent four years in the small town of Oelwein, Ohio, learning how the illegal production of methamphetamine has become one of the town's principal businesses. He notes that "The idea that a drug could take root in Oelwein . . . was . . . counterintuitive, challenging notions central to the American sense of identity." With compelling and compassionate reporting, Reding shows the devastating effects of meth production, distribution, and consumption on individuals and the community. He makes a strong argument for the case that the meth epidemic is the direct result of the industrial capitalism Henry Ford helped to create. The consolidation of the agricultural industry, the movement offshore of manufacturing, the out-migration of people from small towns, the growth of the powerful pharmaceutical lobby--all are part of the story of meth, and "the real story is as much about the death of a way of life as it is about the birth of a drug. If ever there was a chance to see the place of the small American town in the era of the global economy, the meth epidemic is it." Just like Henry Ford, we as a culture still harbor a nostalgic world view of American pastoralism and the Puritan work ethic, even as our world is rapidly changing.
While Methland is sobering, it is also hopeful. Reding introduces his readers to the mayor, Larry Murphy; the doctor, Clay Hallberg; and the county prosecutor, Nathan Lein, who fight to save their town--with surprising success. Reding visited the town in 2009, shortly after Methland's publication, to address a large crowd of Oelwein's citizens at the public library. Many of them were uphappy with the way Reding portrayed their town, refusing to believe the meth problem in Oelwein was as bad as he had made it out to be. Reding ends his book with a cautionary question that stands in response: " . . . what Oelwein's very exceptionalism makes clear is how badly rural America continues to hurt, and that we seem to have no plan for reversing--or even slowing the fundamental changes that have gripped small-town life for nearly four decades. How long can we ask Murphy, Clay, and Nathan to fight if we insist on overlooking both their difficulties and their triumphs?"
We hope you will join our discussion of this powerful work of eye-opening journalism, winner of the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize and the Hillman Prize for Book Journalism: Tuesday, May 3, at 6:30 p.m. at Main Library; Thursday, May 19, at 11:00 a.m. at West Ashley Branch Library; and here on the blog.