Review: Ohio

Ohio

Ohio, Stephen Markley. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Summary: Four characters, acquainted with each other in high school return to their home town in Ohio ten years after graduation on the same night, unbeknownst to each other, driven by various longings reflecting lives that turned out differently than they’d hoped.

There are two Ohios. There is the Ohio of big and middle-sized cities, most within the rustbelt, apart from Columbus and Cincinnati, struggling to re-make themselves. Then there is the rest of Ohio. After you subtract the first Ohio, there are about 75 counties, each with a county seat of five to thirty thousand or so people. This story could have taken place in any of them. The largest city in the county, a decent size high school, farmland and a few local industries that employ much of the town. Many were devastated in the Great Recession of 2008. Those who could have left. Or they enlisted, some returning physically and emotionally wounded, some returning in pine coffins. The towns struggle with the opioid epidemic that is ravaging the state. There is the wistful memory of what was, combined with a hopelessness.

That is the backdrop of Stephen Markley’s debut novel, and captures the lived reality of many in my home state, when you get beyond the Chamber of Commerce promotional materials. The disturbing thought as I read this account is that it is a narrative that extends far beyond Ohio, across our national landscape.

The story begins in 2007 with a memorial parade for Rick Brinklan, the son of New Canaan’s chief of police. A bereaved family. A former girlfriend who cannot speak. A former friend who fails to show up. Fast forward six years to a hot summer night in 2013. Four graduates from the local high school, unbeknownst to each other, return to the town the same night.

Bill Ashcraft, an increasingly radical political activist, carries a mysterious package to Kaylen Lynn, for a substantial payoff, Rick’s former girlfriend, who had slept with Bill as well. Stacey Moore, a lesbian and ecologically oriented student of literature returns to New Canaan in her search for Lisa Han, her first love, who broke off with her, and then mysteriously disappeared from her life, apart from a few communications, which oddly, tracked back to New Canaan. She meets Lisa’s mom and an old high school music teacher, but fails to find a clue to Lisa. Dan Eaton, having lost an eye after his third tour of duty, in Afghanistan, returns to see his old flame, Hailey Kowalczyk, now married. Tina Ross drives across the state, leaving the first man who really loved her to avenge herself for a high school sexual assault by Todd Beaufort and his football buddies.

Markley tells the stories of each separately, moving back and forth between high school episodes, subsequent life events, and the present of the summer of 2013. There are points they, and the others they knew who are still in New Canaan intersect. We begin to see that high school wasn’t simply “the best time of our lives” but for each, a darker time that marked their lives, even ten years later. Violence done in high school, known and unknown, comes full circle in violence. Idealism and patriotism dissolves into disillusion and anger and grief.

There is a movement between veneer and reality–the church upbringing and FCA Bible studies, and sexual exploration and violence; the Friday night lights of a powerhouse football teams and cheerleaders, and the horrible things done at unsupervised drinking parties, the betrayals of friends.

The book portrays a bleak view of the world evident in the last words of the book, as Bill and Stacey part after meeting once more, several months after the summer night of 2013:

” ‘Keep searching, Moore.’ He pulled away so he could look her in the eye. ‘Fight like hell. It’s the only thing I’ve ever truly believed. Always, always, always fight like hell.’

And they were gone, these infinitesimal creatures, walking the surface of time, trying and failing to articulate the dreams of ages, born and wandering across the lonesome heavens.”

Heaven for them is empty, dreams fail and die, and yet each of the four in some ways fights on. Danny cares for a wounded buddy, both on the battlefield and at home until he dies. Tina ends up in a prison ward, trying to find hope and forgiveness in the Bible studies she leads. Bill and Stacey keep searching. They make us ask why we keep hope alive in a seemingly hopeless world, why we dream and try to articulate those dreams.

And then there is the mystery of Lisa’s disappearance, resolved in the book, but not in this review. You just have to read this haunting, troubling, and powerful work. It both is and is not about Ohio. It is a reflection on the disjunction between the American dream and American reality, that a rising generation is struggling to make sense of, and with which the postcard towns of our American landscape are trying to come to terms.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Remembering Kent State

I grew up within 40 miles of Kent State University and was a high school sophomore on May 4, 1970. Students had been demonstrating all weekend against US incursion into Cambodia. Some of it had grown violent, with an ROTC building being burned down and students who engaged in rock-throwing at National Guardsmen sent to keep the peace.  Four students died when the National Guard troops ordered to Kent by then Ohio governor James Rhodes opened fire with lives rounds. Sixty-seven shots were fired. Nine others were wounded.  Two of the four students who died, William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer, were not part of the demonstrations and were walking to class, nearly 400 feet away. Sandra Scheuer grew up in Boardman, Ohio, a suburb neighboring my home town of Youngstown.

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We were shopping for spring flowers at our local nursery yesterday when Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio” came on their PA system. The memories came flooding back. Mostly what I remember are three things. One was the day after and walking around as a high school sophomore in shock that this could happen so close to home. Another was that a girl from the Mahoning Valley was among those who died. And the third was fear as I overheard adults who said, “they should have shot more of them.” My hair was kind of long at the time. I wondered how some of them looked at me. That’s an indication of how divided we were as a country at the time over the Viet Nam war and how divided generationally we were.

I find myself reflecting on three things today. One is the importance of responsible dissent. Student dissent did contribute to ending the Viet Nam war and the events at Kent State were part of what caused our nation to pause. Yet not all of the dissent at Kent was responsible. When dissent escalates from words to acts of violence against people and property, we deepen the divides between us. It is also folly to take on an armed force, presuming it won’t act when life and limb are at risk of harm.

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The Guardsmen were also victims that day. They were in a situation for which they were not trained, and they bore the opprobrium of many afterwards, as did returning veterans from the war. It seems that we have learned since to focus more attention on the elders who make such decisions rather than the young men and women who have to put themselves in harm’s way.

Finally, I think about how the war divided our generations. It is not only a case of old men ordering the young into battle. It is what happens when public trust is broken and the keepers of that trust (and those who believe in the keepers) and the ones who are served by those leaders are set at odds with each other. This points up the deep responsibility of those of us who are elders to think not only about protecting our interests, but most deeply, about caring for the next generation when we face such decisions.

If those of us who were young at the time of Kent State can remember these lessons now that we are older, and pass them along, perhaps then we might avoid the sad situation of governors giving orders that result in the killing of our children.

 

Simple Gifts

We just returned from several days in the Amish area of Ohio east of Mansfield and west of New Philadelphia. These Christian communities are known for their simplicity. I have to say we only know these communities from a distance but we often find ourselves returning to this area when we want to get away, to slow down, to the enjoy the beauty of simple things and simply share time together.

Carlisle Inn--Walnut Creek

One of our favorite places, partly because it is filled with good memories of past visits is the Carlisle Inn of Walnut Creek, where we have stayed several times. It is located in the heart of Amish country, between Berlin and Sugar Creek, and near other towns like Charm and Kidron (home of a famous hardware store). They have the friendliest front desk personnel I’ve met, comfortable, quiet and well-appointed rooms and evening snacks and breakfasts.

The Carlisle Inn is walking distance from the Der Dutchman restaurant–simple food well prepared. Favorites for me are “broasted” chicken and pickled beets. After a day of visiting shops in nearby towns, it was a joy just to enjoy a leisurely good meal.

Life stops in the evenings. One of our treasured memories that we revisited were Scrabble games each night, played in their sitting area nibbling on the snickerdoodle cookies they left out for us. For the record, I was undefeated! Later evenings and early mornings were times for some quiet reading–finished most of a new C. S. Lewis biography and also enjoyed a recent biography of John Quincy Adams (stayed tuned!).

This was the first time we had visited in the winter. We drove east from Interstate 71 on State Route 39, which takes you through rolling hill country. We were in no hurry, just taking in the stark beauty of snow covered hills and valleys, bright red painted barns against the snow, rows of corn shocks in the fields, and the black Amish buggys silhouetted against the white landscape.

Of course we visited a number of shops during the day. It gave us the chance to pick up some last minute gifts and admire good craftsmanship. We looked at a number of quilts that we would love to have on our bed, but discovered quality comes at a price! But I found close attention to this workmanship is not dissimilar to studying a work in an art gallery.

These days were a simple gift to us, and in a way a Christmas gift to each other. Perhaps the greatest gift was simply to be able to share all this with the wonderful woman with whom I’ve shared thirty-five years. Merry Christmas, my love!