From the New York Times bestselling author of Le Divorce, a dazzling meditation on the mysteries of the “wispy but material” family ghosts who shape us
Growing up in the small river town of Moline, Illinois, Diane Johnson always dreamed of floating down the Mississippi and off to see the world. Years later, at home in France, a French friend teases her: “Indifference to history—that’s why you Americans seem so naïve and don’t really know where you’re from.”
The j’accuse stayed with Johnson. Were Americans indifferent to history? Her own family seemed always to have been in the Midwest. Surely they had got there from somewhere? In digging around, she discovers letters and memoirs written by generations of stalwart pioneer ancestors that testify to more complex times than the derisive nickname “The Flyover” gives the region credit for.
With the acuity and sympathy that her novels are known for, she captures the magnetic pull of home against our lust for escape and self-invention. This spellbinding memoir will appeal to fans of Bill Bryson, Patricia Hampl, and Annie Dillard.
This book of histories about small-town people in the Midwest, including me, begins not in Illinois, where much of it takes place, but in France a few years ago, at a house party in Provence, with something a French friend said about Americans—something I acknowledged to be true and felt sorry about: that we Americans are naïve and indifferent to history. Certainly I was.
We—my husband, John, and I—denied this with some indignation. We were visiting the French friend, Simone Ward, and her American husband, Stuart, a retired army colonel, whom we’d met a few years before on the ski slopes of Courchevel; they ordinarily lived in Virginia, and we saw one another only when we were all in France because our American lives were geographically too far apart. The winter before we had discussed a summer plan: we would be traveling to Italy in August, and Simone and Stuart had invited us to stay a day or two on our way.
Together with American friends of theirs, they were renting a beautiful, big house from a cousin of Simone’s—an expensive house, but they were dividing the rent among four couples. We had been interested when Simone told us who these other tenants were—retired military men, old classmates or companions-in-arms of her husband, Stuart. So that’s how we had found ourselves surprisingly flung among a gaggle of American army generals in the south of France.
It isn’t every day you meet generals—after all, they inhabit another world, inside their bases or stationed overseas. Our own stations in life (doctor, writer) had not brought us into contact with many generals, and never in their military capacity, though we had known a few in the social world: There was Davis B., the husband of my friend Marjorie, whom we met during his retirement, when he opened an antiques business. And my old friend C. is the daughter of a Marine Corps general—an old, senile gentleman when I last saw him, though in his vigorous younger days a fierce Korean War leader.
I also had some childhood memories, on account of having grown up near a minor army post, the Rock Island Arsenal, on a clump of land right in the middle of the Mississippi River, the site of the golf course where my parents played (and an emplacement of slot machines, which were illegal on either shore of the river, that is, in both Illinois and Iowa), an armory, a museum, and neat lines of the graves of Confederate men imprisoned here by the Union army during the Civil War.
John and I live in France now a lot of the time, in Paris, along with thousands of other Americans. He is a professor of medicine with a role in the control of worldwide tuberculosis and other lung diseases, in an organization whose seat is in Paris. Of course we’re delighted to live in a pleasant place like Paris, but explaining why you live abroad is always tricky. The one thing you, we, Americans, are not allowed to say is that there is somewhere better than America to live. This is an unspeakable apostasy, even though anyone who has lived in one of the better places knows it’s true.
I’m not speaking of morally better, not speaking about virtue, but about livability in the sense that American magazines track the best places, from the points of view of public transport, crime, museums and hospitals and schools and so on. We mustn’t say it, but I have noticed that more and more Americans like us are living Elsewhere if they have a good excuse, and this was something inconceivable only a few years ago. Then, you got hardship pay for living Elsewhere.
In my case, living abroad was by accident, John’s job. Yet I became aware that he and I were inadvertently part of a historical trend: Americans didn’t stop moving once they got to the West Coast, but have moved on, sometimes up to Alaska, sometimes back to roots in the Old World, recapturing the vanished days. More than fifty thousand Americans live in Paris alone.
We’d arrived in Saint-Pantaléon in September. We were in the south of France—was this called the Lot? The Luberon? The region everyone was said to love that to us looked too much like California to be exotic. Even the fire-blighted fields were familiar.
The driveway was long, lined with stiff narrow trees like the Corot painting I remembered on the cover of my second-grade reader. With Venus de Milo on the crayon box, our distant European connections were always before American children, no invocations of Mexico or Cairo back then, except on the packages of Camel cigarettes our mothers smoked.
At the end of the driveway was a gravel turnaround, and beyond that, open gates into a courtyard. At the opposite side of the courtyard, a large house, in what in California we would call the Spanish style, with a tile roof and a vine-covered stucco wall. Several cars were parked at the edges of the turnaround, and a man stood at the gate, hands in his pockets, smiling at us in a welcoming way, then strolling toward us. It was easy to guess he was one of the generals Simone and Stuart were sharing the house with. He was not wearing a uniform, but his close haircut, the compact fitness of his erect though rather short figure, and the starched perfection of his shirt, as if he traveled with a batman, revealed his identity all the same.
“You must be Simone’s visitors,” he said to us, opening the car door for me. “Bill Baum.” His charm was palpable even in these few words, a handsome, smiling man whose air of authority left no doubt that I would be getting out of the car as his gesture required.
We introduced ourselves to General Baum, and embraced Simone, who came flying out of the house. The two men carried into the kitchen two cases of wine we had brought, and I followed with a flat of vegetables from a roadside stand that had remained somehow unburned in a swath of singed shrubbery. In the kitchen we met Mrs. Baum, Cynthia, wearing a scarf over her hair, cooking something that smelled delicious. She waved her wooden spoon at us with a conspiratorial, welcoming grin, the complicity and sociability of cooks. The aroma of beef and carrots proclaimed some sort of Provençale triumph for dinner. The impression of complete domestic perfection was heightened by meeting Sally Rolfe, the other general’s wife, coming in from the market with her arms full of gladioli and daylilies.
Both of these women were beautiful, I noted, still beautiful women in their sixties, slender and straight, each with a variation of blond hair shading to decorous gray. Obviously they had been assets to their husbands; perhaps it’s indispensable, for becoming a general, to have a beautiful wife. Their slenderness bespoke military self-discipline; both Sally Rolfe and Cynthia Baum had the figures of girls.
Our friend Simone’s husband, Stuart Ward, was retired with the rank of colonel because of illness before he could go any higher, a lymphoma that he had since been cured of; but because he was charming and clever, he and Simone had remained friendly with all the people they had started out with when the men were lieutenants at West Point, or captains together in France in the Second World War, or perhaps Stuart had served under them, for they were older than he. Also, Simone and Stuart were known by others to have some money, and some property, and some beautiful furniture from Simone’s side of the family—things to sustain them at the social level their eventual rank would have predicted, but for the illness, which could happen to anyone.
Simone and Stuart had borne with dignity the disappointment of Stuart’s career, perhaps didn’t even feel it, for it was fate that had dealt it to them, and fate sometimes inflicts a merciful freedom from self-blame along with its blows. They didn’t have to bear the harder sting of Stuart’s having made some personal error or having a defect of character.
We were led out onto the porches, where the rest of the party was lying by the pool. Out of earshot, Simone rolled her eyes and said to us in a low voice, “Thank God you’re here. Diversion, dilution.” Only then did we notice that she seemed agitated and tense. Simone is a tall, elegant woman but now with this hint of distress. She smiled enormously at her friends, but we sensed a strain at the edge of her teeth, perhaps the normal strain of anyone who has eight houseguests.
The Lees rose to say hello—tan and lean people a little younger than the others: Lynne and Willard. Willard Lee, like our host, Stuart Ward, was a colonel, or, one should say, only a colonel. Poor Stuart, reddened in the sun, looked wan—he had slowed since we last saw him, and perhaps it was his health that was making Simone tense, or the reminder that if it hadn’t been for his health he too would be a general.
I have changed the names of these military people. What if someone reads this whose son had served with them, or who had himself served under them, looked up to and been led by them? People believe in generals, after all. Military figures like Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington, or George Washington and Ike, were fathers to their men.
We were installed in pretty rooms in the guesthouse on the other side of the pool. The place looked like nothing so much as the Hotel Bel Air, and I had to remind myself that things in California are often modeled after Provence, not the other way round. We unpacked only a little, as our stay would be short. “It looks like Willard Lee is wearing tennis shorts,” John said delightedly, for he is like a hunter, predatory about possible tennis players, elated to spot one. We expected a pleasant day.
Almost immediately, John was taken off to play singles with Willard Lee, and I sat down with the ladies by the pool. I was something of a curiosity—they did not know any writers of fiction, and I became aware that Simone had probably exalted my accomplishments beyond what they deserved. “It’s just incredibly interesting,” said Sally Rolfe. “Wherever do you get your ideas from?” She had a Southern accent, one of the Carolinas. So did the other general’s wife, Mrs. Baum (Cynthia). The aroma of Cynthia’s stew trailed into the garden, seductive and deep in the hot afternoon. Exhaled phrases of satisfaction: dinner would be early, and early to bed— this was the simple, healthy life, how they all would have liked to live in France, as well as in America, God bless it.
I had to answer any number of questions—whether I use a pen or pencil or computer, and how long it takes to write a novel. Despite myself, despite the banality of the questions and the dozens of times I have answered them, I began to feel fascinating. I saw it was the arts of Mrs. Baum and Mrs. Rolfe that conferred this feeling. Like geishas they worked me, John too, when he got back from tennis, asking him about the health of the world and his role in it. Only Lynne Lee (husband just a colonel) betrayed a little prickle of competitive edge when it came to my writing. “Are you published?” she would say, or “Are your books for adults?” It was the dark side of military strategy I was seeing. Cynthia Baum and Sally Rolfe had excelled at concealing what Lynne Lee more clumsily revealed, the vigilant combativeness, the alert defense; their smooth tactical tact disguising a war machine directed at victory for their husbands.
I had two Siamese cats once who worked in a pair, attacking marauders. Together they jumped, hissing and screaming, onto the back of a puppy we brought home. Years before, they had jumped onto the naked back of a lover (it was John, but they didn’t know him then), mistaking his embrace for aggression. I thought of those cats because one of them was named Cynthia. These ladies did not claw the handsome John’s back when he and Willard came in from their tennis (Willard having won); they purred delightfully at him.
Our friend Simone busied herself carrying trays of drinks in and out, stringing the beans, folding the serviettes from the dryer. There was something taciturn and self-sacrificing in her manner, like Martha to the brace of brilliant Marys. Even Cynthia Baum, charged with the dinner—they were taking turns cooking—went at it in the manner of the sprightlier biblical figure, while our poor friend Simone, usually animated, bridge playing, chattering, and fully armed, was now preoccupied, even depressed. I thought she was perhaps worried about Stuart’s health, for he seemed weak. It could not be that the contrast of his pallor with the vigor of the others was newly getting her down, because they were all old friends and saw one another constantly back in Virginia.
Also, she herself had fully developed general’s-wife killer instincts; it was a pity she hadn’t been able to use them like these other women, real generals’ wives. In Saint-Pantaléon, I could see that Simone’s skills, Frenchwoman though she was—that is to say, full of rigor and wiles—were underdeveloped compared to those of women who had spent decades as the wives of successful generals. Sally Rolfe and Cynthia Baum—even Lynne Lee— could not come up to them; her passionate resentment, the flavor of her disappointment, husband just a colonel, were too palpable.
“I could never write a book. How marvelous for you,” Lynne was saying. “I’m absolutely too damn stupid and that’s a fact,” which seemed to mean: stupidity is exactly what’s needed for book writing, bitch, and fortunately I’m too smart for that.
“I see that Willard and your husband are back. It looks like Willard won. I can always tell from the way he walks. I tell him he has to let other people beat him once in a while so they’ll keep playing with him,” she said.
John and Willard Lee went to shower. We ladies swam, then went with the generals into the village to look at the church. When I came out from showering and changing at dinnertime, Simone was bringing drinks onto the patio—whatever these are called in France, I suppose terrasses. I helped her with the trolley of glasses while she filled the ice bucket. When she came out of the kitchen, where Cynthia Baum was putting the finishing touches on the dinner, she was literally grinding her teeth.
“The Cuisine Derby” was her only remark.
Then the interesting cuisine. The food was evolved to an obsessive pitch; luckily, the haricots verts we had brought were harmonious with Cynthia’s perfect navarin. The company was convivial and relaxed by the end of dinner, and sat up late talking or, rather, listening to a discussion of history—all except Stuart, who went to bed before ten.
The topic of historical memory came up after the excellent dinner, when we’d gathered on the patio and the American army general Rolfe was telling about his French ancestors. His colleague, Bill Baum, was in Europe to look up his roots in Germany. The Baums and Rolfes were both retired and had the luxury of time for genealogical research.
“Some of my forebears were Huguenots from around La Rochelle,” Rolfe was saying, “but some were Catholics fleeing before the Revolution. The French Revolution, I mean. Many people don’t realize the extent of Catholic immigration into America, mostly into Maryland. . . .”
It was this interesting discourse, well informed and lightly given, on the subject of early immigrants to America that had prompted Simone’s saying that it was unusual for Americans to take an interest in history in any form. “After they mention the Pilgrims or covered wagons, they fall silent, they know nothing.”
“It’s because we don’t believe that ancestry matters; it’s what you are yourself that counts. It’s an axiom of Americanness to be self-made,” said John, sturdily defensive of our supposed national classlessness and belief in possibilities.
“Americans seem to think we French are pathetic for knowing and caring so much about our background,” Simone went on.
“It’s easier for you because French history took place on such a small stage,” said John, unfairly, I thought, since French history had bled all across Europe and even to Russia. I recognized a belligerent edge to his tone; he was evidently stung by the knowledge that though he had a covered wagon in his family tree—his own grandmother went to California in one in the 1880s—that’s about as much as he knew.
Simone asked John and me about our ancestors, and was triumphant when we gave vague answers. Most Americans she’d met had no idea about anything before their own grandfathers, if that. Neither of us had thought much about them beyond a mention of Scotch-Irishness, whatever that was.
“Indifference to history,” Simone sniffed. “That’s why Americans seem so naïve and always invade the wrong countries.”
How American we suddenly felt. It’s when you’re in a foreign land and someone criticizes the United States that you come to feel most American, and in my case, most midwestern, because California, where I’ve lived for fifty years, has never felt as much like America as Illinois does.
“Well, now, that’s why we’ve all come to France,” said General Rolfe, smoothly diplomatic, “to find out more about history and avoid the mistakes of the past.” I thought I also detected a note of sarcasm pointedly meant to remind Simone of American involvement in two wars to save France. It was during the Second World War that she had met Stuart, a young American officer come to save her. I also thought, but did not say, about how both our fathers, John’s and mine, had fought in the First World War to save France, in 1918.
We were on our way to Italy, as I said, to a foundation where we would work on our books. I was writing up certain travel experiences I’d had on trips with John having to do with tuberculosis and AIDS in distant places. I could have included in my book this visit with the generals that ended so embarrassingly, but I didn’t; it was too soon to digest, really.
Since Simone’s generals, William Baum and Francis Rolfe, were both retired, they had the luxury of time for genealogical research, but they had once been famous fighting men, involved in wars and peacetime cleanups and the training of other soldiers. The older of the two, General Rolfe, was, apparently, a legend in his day, called “Big Cat,” or some such bellicose epithet.
The wives of the generals, Sally Rolfe and Cynthia Baum, were also talking of the war campaigns and genealogical research. Roots are so arbitrary, anyway, that both of the generals’ ladies had adopted, perhaps in deference to the superior rank of their husbands, their husbands’ ancestry. They were familiar with the names of ships sailing out from La Rochelle in the seventeenth century, and of villages in Holland where Huguenots had sheltered, and of places in Germany, which was called something else then, where the sturdy Mennonite pig farmers and potato diggers packed their painted travel trunks for the New World.
The ladies themselves could have been any old American mélange like the rest of us there listening, except for our French friend, Simone. She was an American citizen, but not very American. Though female lineage is apt to be surrendered with the last name, in confrontations with Americanness, Frenchness somehow prevails, as water puts out fire, fire burns paper, and paper soaks up water, and so Simone had not surrendered Frenchness to her American husband, she’d added Americanness on. Are roots arbitrary after all, or adopted?
Early Praise for Flyover Lives by Diane Johnson:
"Johnson is a felicitous writer, cheerfully alert to irony and absurdity. The unfailing deftness of the prose makes this book a pleasure."
“Award-winning novelist and essayist Diane Johnson explores her Midwestern roots and family history in this charming and candid memoir. . . . An enjoyable peek into how America shaped one celebrated author’s consciousness.”
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