Last night I was walking to Champaign’s Brass Rail, talking about Chicago, and how my friends there had referred to me as “country mouse” when I moved to Andersonville in 2000.
“Bright lights, big city,” I said. “I was used to milking cows and picking beans, and a hometown you could blink and miss driving down our one paved road.”
I was warming up to barn cats and grain elevators when my boyfriend stopped me. “You’re from Jacksonville,” he said. “There are 30,000 people in that town. It’s like a suburb of Springfield. Now, that may not be Metropolis, but I wouldn’t call it Mayberry either.”
Then we ducked into the dark bar, drank our Hamm’s with peppermint schnapps chasers, and I artfully and drunkenly changed the subject.
My writerly tendency to mythologize (lie) aside, something else is happening here. Ours is an orderly culture, and it demands quantification, especially, perhaps, in story-telling. “Small-town life” is a motif everyone understands, and its attendant conjurings are nearly always positive. When I wax rhapsodic about life on the farm, hearty five a.m. breakfasts before a day spent in the fields, and lazy afternoons riding our horse Strawberry on back country roads, then into town for a soda pop at the mom & pop grocery, everyone has a smile on their faces. Everyone wants to think of a “simpler” time.
The only problem is, these stories aren’t mine. At least, not most of the time. They were the idylls spent on my grandparents’ farm for a few days each summer; the kind of experience rendered so expertly by James Dickey, Ted Kooser, Jim Harrison, or Little House on the Prairie. (I always loved that her name was Laura, too.) The list of American writers who mine this territory is long.
But who is the laureate of mid-sized towns? Who speaks of Central Illinois, a geography dotted with medium cities alive with more than cornfields? There are code-words of course. Champaign–Urbana has the university. Allerton Park in Monticello. Politics and the Lincoln sites in Springfield, possible home of The Simpsons. The immigrant’s tale and American Dream in Germantown Hills. Sufjan Stevens wrote a song about Decatur. Jacksonville is home of the Ferris wheel and was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. Bloomington boasts the first-ever Steak and Shake. Peoria has the Parade of Lights and Caterpillar, where my uncle worked on the line every day for 40 years. (I think they build tractors and guns there.) Farms and factories and colleges and Chicago when you graduate, unless you stick around.
For the folks up Chicago-way, Central Illinois remains a vast, vague, southern blob. Maybe the rest of the country feels that way too — Midwest, Bible Belt, enough said. The best I can do is offer up a birds-eye view of a singular locale about two hours due west of here: Jacksonville, my own home town. But I’m not sure I know how to talk about it. Does anybody?
Everything I say will be rinsed with childhood. I know there’s something beautiful and terrible there, a place big enough for two colleges and an art gallery, a mental hospital and a prison slipped in, and small enough to house every small-minded prejudice you can imagine. I know I never get a speeding ticket there. I know Kraft and Capitol Records and the Bound to Stay Bound all shut down, and the principal supporting business now is rage, just like Richard Hugo said. I know the Emma Mae Leonard Bird Sanctuary at 5:00 am, when the wrens awake and warble their tune from an oak so large, it takes ten bodies to span it. I know the boys who deal drugs there at night too — weed in my day, meth in the here-and-now. I know the ratio of churches to bars, and I still think our public library is the prettiest I’ve ever seen. I know the football players used to drag skateboarders into the cornfield next to our school and beat the hell out of them, like some John Hughes film magically transported from the suburbs. I know the Dream Cream in the summer has brain-freezing watermelon ice cream cones, and I know the high school girls are still sitting in the stands at pony colt games, sucking on jolly ranchers and flicking hair from their eyes while they watch the boys play. I know some will get out and some will stay, just like anywhere else. But there’s something that sticks to you in these towns, like a sick person carrying the infection and the cure at the same time.
Author Ander Monson said, “Everyone who is not from here is not from here, and that’s all there is to say. Everyone who is from here is STILL from here, regardless of where they are or where they end up.” He grew up in the Michigan version, and he gets it.