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Book review: "Flyover Lives" by Diane Johnson

Have an awful life and live to write about, and you’re on the path to a contemporary memoir. Such memoirs abound on bookstore shelves, with tales of traumatic abuse, shame and suicide, rape, devastating depression, addiction—life’s real horror stories. The best, however, are not only harrowing but beautifully written, Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. But a life’s story need not be heartrending to be interesting, to be memoir-worthy, and bestselling novelist Diane Johnson’s new Flyover Lives is one of those memoirs that proves it.

Flyover Lives is named for the “flyover states,” the seemingly undramatic U.S. Midwest that Johnson’s ancestors helped settle, states that today are not destinations, but distant landscapes we disregard at 30,000 feet. Johnson’s book, though, is a detour that allows us to land and visit with her and generations past, read from their journals, learn of their pioneering successes and failures, their loves and losses. Even her childhood home of then small town Moline, Illinois becomes a character who warrants a front porch visit, a little fat chewing, simply because people were born and grew up and died there. They went to the movies in Moline, in 1945, and saw newsreel war images that stayed with them, making them grateful that they didn’t know what real suffering is. They were embarrassed by their father’s quirky underwear there, and learned to love their aunts and uncles. They left there to go to college, find themselves, marry and divorce, and move halfway across the country, then partway around the world, and learn that they can’t ever really leave.

Examined thoughtfully, these lives are interesting, Johnson’s and her family’s, and she reveals them with a respectful and often humorous narrative that makes them seem familiar. In particular, if you are Caucasian, middle class and born between the two world wars through the baby boomer years, you will recognize the more recent of these flyover lives in their details: Saturday double features, the dress-up box, learning to use Tampons—not the pads mothers recommended, college as a stepping stone to marriage, the ability to transcend the 1950s and become a different kind of woman.

Throughout the details, the family history, Johnson’s anecdotes of working with famous directors as a screen writer, and her self-revelations, the book reads like an intimate conversation, no plot, but lots of character. It has a quiet sense of time passed, time passing, the melancholy of days gone by, of people inadequately known and no longer available. No, Flyover Lives has none of the titillating trauma of many memoirs. What it has is a subtle poignancy, a gentle narrative of insightful, tender storytelling by a writer who seems to honor her family’s past as much as her present, the quirkiness and mundanity, the misadventures and achievements, with a sense that the people now gone had stories that went with them, stories we would have liked to hear.

Flyover Lives: a Memoir

Published by Viking January 2014

Other books by Diane Johnson include:

Lulu in Marrakech

Into a Paris Quartier

L’Affaire

Le Mariage

Le Divorce

Persian Nights

Kit-Bacon Gressitt's commentary and political fiction can be read on her blog Excuse Me, I'm Writing and have been published by San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, The Ocean Beach Rag, The Progressive Post and San Diego Free Press. She formerly worked for the North County Times. She is also host of Fallbrook's monthly Writers Read open mic and can be reached at kbgressitt@gmail.com.