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Feature

Storylines America

By Tina Pamintuan | HUMANITIES, September/October 2001 | Volume 22, Number 5

Georgia Lomax began dreaming of a life in Montana after reading two books: Norman McLean’s A River Runs Through It, and Ivan Doig’s memoir, This House of Sky. They gave her a taste for the state’s vast and dramatic landscape and a sense of the isolation of its people. In 1988, Lomax moved to Montana from her native Washington State. She began working for the public library in Kalispell and discovered that the expanses she had romanticized in her reading had their down side. Montana had a population of only five people for every square mile, and the distances -- particularly to Lomax’s library -- were great.

“The problem was, you not only had to have the motivation to get there but the transportation and the time,”she explains. “There were a lot of people we weren’t reaching.”

Her solution was “Big Sky Radio,”a call-in radio show about Montana literature run with the joint effort of the state’s libraries. Lomax wanted to make reading a community affair, and at the same time she wanted to encourage people to come in and explore the library’s holdings. During the two years that it was broadcast on KIFO, “Big Sky Radio” became a community forum for exploring life in the state. One listener, a rancher, remarked at the series’s conclusion, “I feel like the radio program brought a huge, diverse community together -- the people from the reservation, the people from the ranches, the people from the universities.”

Today, Lomax’s plan to get people interested in libraries by emphasizing regional literature is an ongoing project of the American Library Association. Now known as StoryLines America, the public radio call-in show continues to raise provocative questions for its listeners -- questions that lead listeners to examine their connection to landscapes and communities. Since its inception in 1993, the program, which is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and Barnes and Noble Booksellers, has produced five distinct series focusing on the literatures of the American Southwest, Northwest, and Southeast, as well as the states of Montana and California.

The newest StoryLines America offering, “StoryLines Midwest,” explores selected works of literature from the eight-state region of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri. Keith Taylor, a University of Michigan English professor, and NPR producer Charity Nebbe will host the thirteen hour-long weekly programs from WUOM in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The new series will begin in October with a discussion of Townships, a collection of personal essays about the Midwest edited by Michael Martone. The program is to be broadcast on two hundred public radio stations throughout the Midwest.

In choosing the books for the series, StoryLines America relies on the input of teachers, scholars, and writers who are familiar with the region and its literature. Short story writer and novelist David Long, who wrote the discussion guides for the Midwest series, served on the committee that picked the books. “We were looking for books that were in print and easily available. Most of all, we were looking for books that were representative of the region, but we didn’t want to be too narrow about what that meant.”

One issue that arose during the committee’s discussions was how to include major works of Midwestern literature without being redundant. Two books that caused such debates were Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which eventually made the list, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which did not. Although some, like Long, believed that Twain’s seminal work had been treated too much in book discussions, others felt that the novel, which follows Huck and his companion Jim south along the Mississippi River, was too important not to include.

The committee, however, bumped The Great Gatsby off the original list of books because many members felt it had been discussed too much. In its place, the group considered combining Hemingway’s The Nick Adams Stories and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories in the same program, but this idea was dropped due to the amount of material. In the end, one show is devoted strictly to Hemingway’s The Nick Adams Stories. “So you start with Gatsby and you end up with Nick Adams,” explains Long. “We could have picked thirteen different books and had just as strong a show.”

The majority of books that made the list for the Midwest series are fictional works, including books by the region’s four Nobel prize winners: Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow, and Toni Morrison. “There were certain books that just had to be in the show -- like Lewis’s Main Street,” notes Long.

Others, however, caused more debate. The appropriateness of Morrison’s Beloved, which is set on a plantation in Kentucky and in the city of Cincinnati, was questioned. Long was in favor of keeping the book. “The fact that the book is set along a boundary was important. One way to know a place is by its borders.”

Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, Richard Wright’s Native Son, Louise Erdrich’s The Antelope Wife, Joyce Carol Oates’s them, Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love, and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres complete the list of fictional works.

The nonfiction list includes A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold in addition to Townships. Two works of poetry, Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems and Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems, will be treated in the same show.

Despite the potentially large number of participants in the program’s listening area, StoryLines America manages to preserve a relaxed tone. “Radio has an intimacy, imagination, and an informality that TV doesn’t have and perhaps it still has more of a sense of extended community than the Internet,” says Zalis. In many of the shows, callers not only discuss the stories found in the work, but contribute accounts of their own experiences. A discussion of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road brought reflections of youthful wanderlust, including one guest’s admission that he had stolen his first copy from a used bookstore.

Another way the show connects with people’s lives is by bringing in guests who have, as Zalis puts it, “the perspective of being in the skin of the books.” Peppered among the voices of scholars and authors are those of mountain men, cattle ranchers, and tribal leaders. For the discussion on A.B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky, the guest was Gene Gordoner, a mountain man from north-west Montana, who compared living alone in the wilderness today with the experience of two centuries past when Boone Caudill, the book’s hero, roamed the Montana frontier.

Authors also take part in StoryLines discussions. Often, a highlight for listeners is hearing the author read excerpts. Not only does the presence of authors allow listeners to ask questions directly to the writer of the work, but it also gives the author a forum to speak directly to the reader. During her appearance on “StoryLines California,” Maxine Hong Kingston, who wrote about growing up in California in Woman Warrior, was quick to point out when she felt the discussion of her book has being mishandled.

She urged the hosts and callers not to confuse her with the narrator of the book. “As I listen to you speak about me and my book, it makes me very uncomfortable when you refer to the main character as ‘Maxine,’” she said. “I had not named the main character because I wanted her to be larger and also more invisible than I am; there’s this floating personality that goes through there.”

Kingston’s tone was more reproachful on another point -- one that has been a sore point for writers from minority backgrounds for years. “You keep classifying my work as Chinese American literature or Asian American literature,” she said in response to a description of her work as an “icon” of Asian American literature. “When I write these myths, and when I write them in English, and when the immigrants bring the myths over here, and when we tell those myths here, they are American myths and as Chinese as these myths may sound to people, I have now created them as American myth and what I am reading is American literature. We don’t need another adjective in front.”

For Doris Betts, a writer and University of North Carolina English professor, who co-hosted “StoryLines Southeast,” a particularly moving moment occurred during a discussion of Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family. This nonfiction work chronicles the Ball family’s slave-holding history, which includes six generations, twenty-five plantations, and as many as four thousand slaves. They had been discussing a scene in the book in which Ball takes an elderly black woman back to visit the slave cabins. “Ed then told us that she had just died the week before the broad-cast,” Betts recalls. “I think I had a clearer sense that in this region we are now reading one another, by which I mean that white readers are reading black authors and vice versa, that men are interested in the world women depict and vice versa, and that this kind of sharing is the means to discover how our separate stories mesh into the larger one.”

Storytelling is a frequent topic in each of the regional series. Scott Russell Sanders, a writer who teaches at Indiana University in Bloomington and contributed to the choosing of the books for the Midwest series, says, “It’s natural when people are calling in to respond to a work of literature that they tell their own stories about what’s happened in their lives. It’s a universal human need.” It is also, according to Betts, ingrained in our culture. “The South has a long tradition of oral story-telling,” she says, “which can have motives ranging from amusement, changing the subject, putting the listener in his place, teaching moral lessons, you name it.”

The positive reception that StoryLines has received throughout the country is partially due, says Zalis, to what he sees is a growing interest in local identity: “When StoryLines works best, there is a relaxed, casual sense of a group of informed people talking, almost as if they are together sitting on a porch, sharing stories and perceptions, exploring issues and possibilities. Conversation is both about the books as well as what participants might see from the vantage of their own metaphorical porches -- the yards, neighborhoods, towns, cities and landscape around them.”

Tina Pamintuan is a writer in Washington, D.C.

The American Library Association has received $1,015,570 from NEH to produce five regional series of Storylines America.