The great unknown middle
Between the East Coast and West Coast of the United States there lies an expanse of territory sometimes dismissed by residents of those coasts as “flyover country,” their inhabitants at once exotic and prosaic, material for a middling anthropological study. They live in what H.L. Mencken called “the cow states” or “the steppes.”
Christopher Harper, who comes from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and graduated from high school in 1969, thinks that the people of that expanse deserve to be known, particularly as the baby boom generation does the decent thing and begins to shuffle off into history. He writes about those people, and himself, in Flyover Country: Baby Boomers and Their Stories (Hamilton Books, 147 pages, $25).*
Chris Harper has had a distinguished career as a journalist, working for the Associated Press, Newsweek, and ABC News—he was one of the first journalists on the scene in Guyana after the Jonestown suicides. He now teaches journalism at Temple University. But he continues to identify with his roots in the Midwest, and as the fortieth anniversary of his high school graduation approached, he sought out his former classmates to see what their stories could show about their region and their generation.
Some, of course, faltered in the struggle of life, sinking into alcoholism or drug abuse or misfortune. Some stayed close to Sioux Falls while others, like Chris, moved into careers in the wider world—a law professor, a theologian. But all of them continue to identify closely with their origins and the values they learned growing up.
For those who fall into the easy stereotype of the baby boomers as selfish, self-indulgent, and narcissistic, this book present evidence to the contrary. The Class of 1969 at Lincoln High School in Sioux Falls, despite the turmoil of the Cold War and Vietnam, and all that has happened since, exemplifies those characteristics we think of as Midwestern American. They are hospitable, straightforward, unpretentious, unassuming. They are serious about their work and their responsibilities. Though they can hold differing political and social views, they are not rabid about them. They are, overwhelmingly, for lack of a more technical term, good people.
As Chris sums up, “[T]he virtues—and some of the vices—welded into our early years in Sioux Falls helped us through the past forty years and would continue to do so: the acceptance of hard work, the desire to help our neighbors and those we didn’t know, and the stoicism to accept our fate when necessary.”
Their stories are worth being told.
*Disclosure: I met Chris Harper while teaching in a summer program in Italy in 2006, we have been friends since, and I gave his manuscript a preliminary edit. I feel an affinity for him as a fellow member of the Class of ’69, as someone who grew up in flyover country (though in a backwater border state rather than the Midwest proper), as a journalist and teacher, and as someone who performed in adolescence in a band (You may be as startled as my children to think of me at the keyboard as the band swings into “Twist and Shout,” but it happened, and there are witnesses yet living).