DRIFTLESS

David Rhodes

With Driftless, Rhodes returns to the midwestern landscape he knows so well, offering a fascinating and entirely unsentimental portrait of a town apparently left behind by the march of time. Home to a few hundred people yet absent from state maps, Words, Wisconsin, comes richly to life by way of an extraordinary cast of characters. Among them, a middle-aged couple guards the family farm from the mendacious schemes of their milk co-operative; a lifelong paraplegic suddenly regains the use of her legs, only to find herself crippled by fury at her sister and caretaker; a woman of conflicting impulses and pastor of the local Friends church stumbles upon an enlightenment she never expected;

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With Driftless, Rhodes returns to the midwestern landscape he knows so well, offering a fascinating and entirely unsentimental portrait of a town apparently left behind by the march of time. Home to a few hundred people yet absent from state maps, Words, Wisconsin, comes richly to life by way of an extraordinary cast of characters. Among them, a middle-aged couple guards the family farm from the mendacious schemes of their milk co-operative; a lifelong paraplegic suddenly regains the use of her legs, only to find herself crippled by fury at her sister and caretaker; a woman of conflicting impulses and pastor of the local Friends church stumbles upon an enlightenment she never expected; a cantankerous retiree discovers a cougar living in his haymow, haunting him like a childhood memory; and a former drifter forever alters the ties that bind a community together.

At once intimate and funny, wise and generous, Driftless is an unforgettable story of contemporary life in rural America.

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  • Milkweed Editions
  • Paperback
  • May 2009
  • 464 Pages
  • 9781571310682

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About David Rhodes

As a young man, David Rhodes worked in fields, hospitals, and factories across Iowa. After receiving an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he published three acclaimed novels: The Last Fair Deal Going Down (1972),The Easter House (1975), and Rock Island Line (1977). In 1977, a motorcycle accident left him partially paralyzed. In 2008, Rhodes returned to the literary scene with Driftless, a novel that was hailed as “the best work of fiction to come out of the Midwest in many years” (Alan Cheuse). He lives with his wife, Edna, in rural Wisconsin.

Praise

Comprised of a large number of short chapters, the novel opens with a prologue reminiscent of Steinbeck’s beautiful tribute to the Salinas Valley in the opening of East of Eden, with a little touch of Michener’s prologue to his novel Hawaii. The book moves at a stately pace as it offers deep philosophy and meditative asides about life in Words, Wisconsin, in the Driftless zone, which is to say, about life on earth.

NPR, All Things Considered

A wry and generous book. Driftless shares a rhythm with the farming community it documents, and its reflective pace is well-suited to characters who are far more comfortable with hard work than words.

Christian Science Monitor, Best Novels of 2008

[Driftless] presents a series of portraits that resemble Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology in their vividness and in the cumulative picture they create of village life. Each of these stories glimmers.”

New Yorker

Winner of the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, Rhodes’s first novel in over 30 years is set in a rural area of Wisconsin so remote and forgotten that it’s left off the map. Most of the residents have chosen to be isolated from the world around them and one another. Nevertheless, their concerns—the meaning of spirituality, family, love, and desire—are global and universal. The characters and their struggles come vibrantly alive.”

Library Journal

 

Discussion Questions

The prologue describes the geography of the region in which Driftless takes place, and the novel’s title is taken from the name of the area. How does the Driftless Region, which Rhodes describes as “singularly unrefined . . . in its hilly, primitive form,” influence the events of the book?

Words, Wisconsin, is a tiny town, not even located on maps of the region. How important is the rural setting of Driftless? How would the book be different if it were set in a city, or even in nearby Grange?

In many ways, Driftless seems to be a novel of oppositions—between the dairy corporation and the farmers, the Amish and the other residents, or a caregiver and a caretaker. What are some of the other oppositions in the book?

When July first arrives on the outskirts of Words, he observes that “the dead forever change the living.” How does this assertion relate to July’s experience? Is a statement like this more true in a small town like Words?

During Winnie’s epiphany, she realizes that “boundaries did not exist. Where she left off and something else began could not be established.” Is this notion and/or experience of unity displayed elsewhere in the book?

Early in the book, Winnie is told that “religion is irrelevant to the modern world.” Do you agree? In this book, is religion a source for wisdom, naïveté, or a combination of the two?

Both Winnie and Gail are described as being “chosen”—Winnie through her epiphany; Gail because of the song she writes. What does the parallel between these two characters tell you about them? Are there other characters who are similarly paired?

Driftless is a collection of stories from many different characters. Do you think any one of the characters is particularly important or central? What is the effect of having many speakers narrate the story?

Grahm is forced to trust Cora’s instincts when they lose their children in the snowstorm. In what way does that decision influence the rest of their story? Are there other characters who must trust in something beyond their control?

Words is described as a town “attached more firmly to the past than to the present.” Some of the inhabitants of Words do seem firmly rooted in their history, but many of them also seem to be escaping their past. What role does the past play in Driftless?