Barnstorming Ohio To Understand America, David Giffels. New York: Hachette Books, 2020.
Summary: The author recounts a year of traveling Ohio, always a political bellweather, to understand America.
David Giffels lives in Akron, just down Interstate 76 from my hometown of Youngstown, which features prominently in his new book. Both of us have lived our lives in Ohio, so reading this felt like inside baseball. What Giffels did in the writing of this book is travel throughout the state, talking to a wide variety of people. He contends that in doing so, this does not just reveal Ohio, it reveals the country, of which Ohio is a microcosm:
Geographically and culturally, the state is an all-American buffet, an uncannily complete everyplace. Cleveland is the end of the north, Cincinnati is the beginning of the South, Youngstown is the end of the East, and Hicksville (yes, Hicksville) is the beginning of the Midwest. Across eighty-eight counties, Ohio mashes up broad regions of farmland, major industrial centers, small towns, the third-largest university in the country, the second largest Amish population, and a bedraggled vein of Appalachia. It is coastal, it is rural, it is urban, and suburban. (p. 5)
That about captures it, although I would add that Columbus, where I now live, is home of the second largest Somali population in the U.S.
He begins by profiling Jim Renner, a former factory worker, then a business owner, someone who over time shifted in loyalty from the Democratic party to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. His story sounds like that of many disaffected Democrats who believed they had been ignored.
His travels take him to Lordstown, after GM shut down the plant and the struggles of workers, promised a recovery by the president, waiting to see what the company would offer in the way of employment at another plant. He talks about why Bruce Springsteen’s Youngstown so perfectly captures the pain of so many workers. He visits Mansfield, interviewing an indie bookstore owner leading an effort to repopulate the downtown with businesses (a store that is closing as I write). He chronicles a growing craft beer business and the resurgent Over the Rhine neighborhood of Cincinnati.
He returns to Youngstown in time for Congressman Tim Ryan’s announcement of his presidential bid, attempting to be a voice for the voiceless. He shifts to Hilliard, Ohio, outside Columbus, and a group of women going to the Women’s March. Then, we’re back home learning more of his son’s story, from fireman to policeman, on the front line of fighting Ohio’s opiate crisis. He jumps over to the demise of a local shopping mall and others, including one we regularly shopped at when we lived in Cleveland, now an Amazon fulfillment center.
Then another Ohio. Agricultural Ohio with a farmer outside Delaware, Ohio, struggling with changing weather patterns making it difficult to plant his fields. This is the Ohio where the awards come in the form of bumper crops, and fresh corn on the cob. Like the Lordstown workers, he wants to be heard, he wants Washington leadership to know where things are made and grown in “flyover” country.
Back to Youngstown, he invokes a recent legend of Valley politics–Jim Traficant–bad hair, vulgar mouth, loud clothes, fighting for the worker, and taking a little on the side, the name of the game in Youngstown politics. It helps explain how Mahoning County nearly went Republican and Trumbull County to the north did. He chronicles the sputtering end the campaign of Tim Ryan, Traficant’s protege.
Remaining months take him back to Cincinnati where he meets the former mayor and learns of policing reforms. He hangs out at a Renaissance Fair near Dayton, visits a fading Ohio River town, learning why some hang on and the hope fracking offers. He strikes a positive note as he profiles dropping off at Ohio State a young man he met at his local community college, one who turned his life around and has big hopes for a future after law school.
His journey ends at the beginning of the pandemic, reflecting as he awaits the return of the buzzards to Hinckley on why we stay, why we keep coming back. And that is a significant part of the story. With so many hard knocks, why do so many stay, and some return? I don’t think we are offered much in the way of an answer other than the bonds that tie people to each other and to a place. He reveals both resilient people, and those who struggle with hope, and sometimes terrible addictions, some overcoming, others not. He introduces us to all sorts of people who believe their lives matter, their work matters, their hopes and dreams matter–America in a Midwest state. He reveals a shared sentiment, a longing that the nation’s leaders would be worthy of those lives, respect that work, and honor those hopes and dreams.
This is not a Chamber of Commerce Ohio. I appreciate Giffels work because he shows us the Ohio that is, an Ohio I recognize. If he’s right, those from other parts will recognize something of their own situation, their own people and place as well. He opens windows to see unvarnished American life and the longing that our politicians would see it as well.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.