I am fully Upper Midwest stock, something I am reminded of anytime I stand near a southern woman, with her dainty, bare legs and the way she gracefully wears sweat along the hairline. My knees are large and I am not graceful when I have to make my blazer and skirt look professional all day in August in Georgia, and my hair was long ago in a pony tail, God help me, while the southern ladies still maintain their glossed curls.
I am in awe of the southern woman.
In 1998, my parents and brothers and I moved to Georgia, which is the same year most of my freshman students in college were born, so it's safe to say this place is home. I have written many times on this blog about the strangeness of being born and raised and "from" Michigan, but leaving early enough in my development (I was nearly eleven) that I really can't claim that state as the one that I "know." I avoided and disowned Georgia history--with its Cherokee Indian removal and thirteenth colony heritage and oh, that little war between the states--for more than a decade before realizing I also didn't know or remember much about Michigan's history either, leaving me a strange kind of history orphan. Ironic, for someone who, at the time of this realization, was earning a degree in history. So I tread onward, into graduate school, studying Georgia and the South in earnest, considering its impact on my culture for the first time. It is complex and fascinating and filled with landmines even the best historians cannot avoid, and the more I study it, the more it remains elusive.
Then, grad school was over, and my student-designated job ended and I was unemployed. Something I had not been since I was fifteen working in the trailer offices of the trucking company where my dad worked in Wrightsville, Georgia, where I filed the employee paperwork and drug testing results after school a couple nights a week. I knew at the time it would seem a blip in retrospect, but it was so painful and embarrassing and a near existential crisis. Two degrees, and a smattering of continual but varied jobs and experience, and no one wanted me.
So I started interviewing my dad about his time as a detective, about a particular story he always thought might be great in retelling. In short, I began writing the novel I still fight with several nights a week, love and hate and disdain and wonderment, about a band of stoic, ruthless, contemplative, complex characters from the Upper Midwest. And in the three years since then, I have been trying to understand the stock that makes my ancestors--because even as an adopted southerner, my ancestors are midwestern, by way of Germany, Sweden, and Italy--the way they are. The characters I am writing, that I both know so well and long to understand more fully, are of the same kin and so I find myself flung backward into the earliest pieces of my memory, culture, and understanding of the world.
And the world gives freely of its insight on that part of the United States, and I scribble it all down madly. Significantly, we were given a work of visual and literary brilliance this year, with Noah Hawley's fantastic Fargo (season 2), set in Minnesota and North and South Dakota in 1979, a pivotal year of dissolution with the realities of life and families still reeling from a war and what it meant, encapsulated in the implosion of one small-town mob family and those who were caught in the wake. I loved season one (I watched it four times), but somehow season two captured the essence of pathos of midwesterners even better. The overall theme explores the absurdity of life in relief against the meaning and purpose we--civilization, individuals--constantly seek, find, and place, through the eyes of a cast of characters we might incorrectly assume aren't looking quite as hard as the rest of us for what it all means.
"Camus says knowing we're gonna die makes life absurd," Norine tells terminally ill Betsy Solverson in the season two finale, at the same time Betsy's husband Lou is participant in an unbelievable and dangerous incident/massacre/showdown one state over.
"Well I don't know who that is. But I'm guessing he doesn't have a six-year-old girl," Betsy says in response. "We're put on this earth to do a job. And each of us gets the time we get to do it. When this life is over and we stand in front of the Lord, well, you try telling him it was all some Frenchman's joke."
Irony, bloodshed, and goofiness melt away and what is left? "People trying in earnest--out of fear, anger, love--to impose order on chaos, to apply meaning to senselessness." [Quote from The Atlantic piece, linked at "Irony."]
This is a much larger human endeavor, this adding search for what it means, so perfectly captured in the ethos and pathos of midwestern stoicism and nose-to-the-grindstone-ness against a backdrop of distinct accents and a lot of snow. It is what I hope to capture in my own characters, because it stretches so far beyond one group of people, really. What I write is not for one region, for one group's perspective on the world, and isn't that, when we get down to it, why any of us write at all? To find in one story the humanity far greater than that one telling--the inciting incident, characters, and journey?
Don't worry, it gets darker.
Perhaps you thought I might get through this whole essay without mentioning that other cultural phenom of 2015-2016, but you would be wrong.
The Upper Midwest has been getting a lot of, shall we say exposure, with the Netflix series Making a Murderer. I am not here to debate or offer my opinion on the content, though I watched the series with the same rapture as many of you. I drive through Manitowoc County every time I fly to Milwaukee and rent a car to drive to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where my entire extended family still lives (Milwaukee's is the closest affordable airport). I felt a lot of things about the Averys and the state of crime and punishment in Wisconsin, the state far more closely related in culture to the U.P. than the lower peninsula of Michigan, save for the solid reputation of the Michigan State Police.
I bring it up because this article, TV: The Shame of Wisconsin, by Lorrie Moore, is a revelation--on the case and the breakdown and the storytelling of the filmmakers, yes. And also on the region itself, and the issues of class and race that the midwest is not immune to. I have argued this since grad school, when I first wrote in a paper about how race relations are no less an issue in the north, except for that fact that the people living there have fewer occasions to have to face the issue. It is easy to "not be racist" when there is not one person of color in your entire town or its surrounding county. (I am not joking about this. There was one adopted girl of South Asian descent in my elementary school, and I assumed she was African American.) The article brings up a number of worthwhile points and offers an overarching narrative, if it's not something of interest to you.
I took a few key thoughts away. First:
One cannot watch this film without thinking of the adage that law is to justice what medicine is to immortality.
But also, and more memorably, I took away a little bit more insight into the people there, in her waxing poetic (both in positive and negative light) about the region and its inhabitants:
Wisconsin is probably the most beautiful of the midwestern farm states. Its often dramatic terrain, replete with unglaciated driftless areas, borders not just the Mississippi River but two great inland seas whose opposite shores are so far away they cannot be glimpsed standing at water’s edge. The world across the waves looks distant to nonexistent, and the oceanic lakes stretch and disappear into haze and sky, though one can take a ferry out of a town called Manitowoc and in four hours get to Michigan. Amid this somewhat lonely serenity, there are the mythic shipwrecks, blizzards, tornadoes, vagaries of agricultural life, industrial boom and bust, and a burgeoning prison economy; all have contributed to a local temperament of cheerful stoicism.
Nonetheless, a feeling of overlookedness and isolation can be said to persist in America’s dairyland, and the idea that no one is watching can create a sense of invisibility that leads to the secrets and labors that the unseen are prone to: deviance and corruption as well as utopian projects, untested idealism, daydreaming, provincial grandiosity, meekness, flight, far-fetched yard decor, and sexting. Al Capone famously hid out in Wisconsin, even as Robert La Follette’s Progressive Party was getting underway. Arguably, Wisconsin can boast the three greatest American creative geniuses of the twentieth century: Frank Lloyd Wright, Orson Welles, and Georgia O’Keeffe, though all three quickly left, first for Chicago, then for warmer climes. (The state tourism board’s campaign “Escape to Wisconsin” has often been tampered with by bumper sticker vandals who eliminate the preposition.)
And the largest gem to come out of my reading:
"The German word Mitläufer comes to mind: going along to get along, in a manner that does not avoid misdeeds—one of the many banalities of evil."
She refers to it to define, as language is often inept to do, a story such as the one told in Making A Murderer. First of all, what a great word. This brought rushing back the feeling I often had in college when I was learning new languages and also maintained an armchair interest in linguistics, reading and listening to podcasts on the subject (long before there was an app to facilitate) when I learned about words that were impossible to translate. 'Mitläufer' is certainly one of those words.
But most importantly, and what compelled me to put word to page, was this kind of concept in a story, in my story, about the dozen or so people living in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan who find themselves inside the circumstances I am writing about. The novel I am writing is about a murder, based only loosely on real events (see above, father-former-detective), but which contains people of the same stock who seem to encounter, abide by, or are at least affected by this exact concept: this 'going along to get along, in a manner that does not avoid misdeeds.'
A quick Google search will reveal it was used often after World War II as part of the denazification hearings, in reference to those on the fringes of Nazi crimes but not direct perpetrators. A source not noted in Wikipedia says:
The German word Mitläufer means literally "with-runner", akin to "lemming-like." A Mitläufer is one who is not convinced by the ideology of the group they follow—they merely offer no resistance, because of a lack of courage, for instance, or opportunism.
Obviously it is used in the article about Making a Murderer to describe some of the passive activity happening, to describe the multiple juries, the group mentality of the Manitowoc law enforcement and courts, and other troubling aspects of "business as usual" even as people's lives and liberty are at stake.
To me, it is the best crystallization I have come across yet to describe the character Lorraine in my novel, who finds herself most changed from start to finish: from normal mother trying to make things better for her sons, rearranging her life, to co-conspirator in murder and what that means, as things get better, worse, and more complicated the longer the crime goes unsolved. She's not a hero, and certainly not a victim to anyone but herself, yet she is involved in something evil while being a fully regular part of society and must then unwind the consequences. She is 'mitläufer' to its utter quintessence.