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Flyover Lives: A Memoir

Diane Johnson – best known for giving us scenes of expat life in Paris – has written a curious but engaging memoir about her Midwestern ancestors.

January 17, 2014

Flyover Lives: A Memoir, by Diane Johnson, Viking Adult, 288 pp.

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Reviewed by Katherine A. Powers by The Barnes & Noble Review

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Over the years, as I read Diane Johnson's witty, ironical comedies of manners about Californians in Paris, it never occurred to me that she and I might have anything in common in our origins and influences. I now discover from her curious little memoir, Flyover Lives, that like me, Johnson was born and grew up in a Midwestern town on the Mississippi River and, what's more, got her first taste of what I call life from a Carnegie Library.

By life I mean that painted by Alexandre Dumas, Raphael Sabatini, Nordhoff and Hall, and Captain Maryatt. Here, I see, was another ambitious girl who had no time for Louisa May Alcott, having set her sights on a career of swashbuckling adventure on the high seas. After that, however, our early paths have diverged.

"Flyover Lives" starts and finishes in fine style with the beginning and end of a wicked vignette set in Provence, where Johnson and her husband found themselves members of an exceedingly rivalrous house party whose members knew their own ancestors like their own bank accounts. Johnson says the episode alerted her to how little she knew of her family, and it also reminds us how far this sophisticated writer has come from the "sweetness, stolidity, and commonsense" of her origins.

Diane Johnson was born in Moline, Illinois, home of John Deere's steel plow factory and its later incarnations and expansions. (It is also the gravesite of Frank Dickens, one of the great novelist's unlucky sons.)  Her parents were Midwesterners with French and English forebears who arrived in America in the 18th century and whose descendants eventually moved West. "We were," she writes, "default Americans, plump, mild and Protestant."

Two of Johnson's female ancestors left memoirs, and it is from these and from a scattering of letters, deeds, and photographs that she attempts to recover her forebears from the shadows of the past, eking out the scant evidence of personality with general historical detail.

The longest of the memoirs is that of one Catharine Ann Martin, née Perkins, written around the time of the nation's centennial. She was born in 1800, in a crude cabin in Vermont, and the story she tells of her life is filled with the sort of details that make one glad one wasn't born yet. Her father died in agony from "canser," the remedy of bathing him "in Pork brine with a flannel cloth three quarters of an hour three nights going" having failed to cure him.

Catharine taught school and appears to have been filled with the spirit of uplift in her late teens, working up improving little essays, two instances of which are here: "Refinement" and "Novel Reading." ("What is more detrimental to the happiness of young people than novel reading? It is like a worm at the root of a tender plant, it raises and sinks the mind to extremes, which is unpleasant to the possessor and troublesome to others whose nerves are not so peculiarly fine.") Catharine migrated to the Midwest in 1927, after she married, though achieving that state was more arduous than usual, as her husband-to-be had a habit of disappearing, leaving Catharine wondering if she was engaged at all.

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