Book Report: Foreigner’s take on the American experience

by Dave Wood

It’s always eye-opening to read a foreigner’s take on life in these United States.

From Alex de Toqueville and Frances Trollope to Alistair Cooke, foreigners have given their readers new and fresh insights into the American experience.

Such a writer is still among us. He’s Jonathan Raban, whose new book of essays, “Driving Home” (Pantheon, $29.95) is a delight that might not please all readers.

Raban is a Brit, who has settled in Seattle, Wash., and now writes about things American.

One of his big books came years ago, when he maneuvered his boat down the Mississippi, stopping in places like Prairie du Chien, Wis., and other ports of call.

In his new book, he takes a swipe at Minnesotans which is guaranteed to get their dander up.

“The great flat farms of Minnesota are laid out in a ruled grid, as empty of surprises as a sheet of graph paper,” he writes.

“Every graveled path, every ditch, has been projected along the latitude and longitude lines of the township-and-range survey system.

“The farms are square, the fields are square, the houses are square; if you could pluck their roofs off from over people’s heads, you’d see the families sitting at square tables in the dead center of square rooms.

“Nature has been stripped, shaven, drilled, punished, and repressed in tis right-angled, right-thinking Lutheran country.

“It makes you ache for the sight of a rebellious curve or the irregular, dappled color of a field where a careless farmer has allowed his corn and soybeans to cohabit.

“But there are no careless farmers on this flight path.

“The landscape is open to your inspection — and to God’s — as an enormous advertisement for the awful rectitude of the people.

“There are no funny goings-on down here, it says; we are a plain, upright folk, fit candidates for heaven.”

As a former Minnesotan, I plead guilty as charged.

This screed is followed by gentler examples of the writer’s craft, like a beautiful essay he wrote for the Manchester Guardian about why people love to travel.

There’s another fascinating piece in which Raban begins his journey near Red Wing, and drives along the Mississippi in 2010 revisiting his boat route, to witness the ravages of the great flood of 2010.

Editor’s note: Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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