TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. If you feel the summertime urge to expand your horizons, our book critic Maureen Corrigan has two books to recommend. One is a chatty cultural history about the great American road trip. The other is an early-20th century classic of Midwestern rural life. Here's her review of "Don't Make Me Pull Over!" by Richard Ratay and "Main-Travelled Roads" by Hamlin Garland.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: One summer's day a few years ago, my daughter and her friends piled into a car that one of them had recently gotten a license to drive. Where are you going? - I asked with false calm. We're driving up Wisconsin Avenue until it turns into Rockville Pike, my daughter said, naming some roads in and around Washington, D.C. Then she continued, we're going to keep on driving up Rockville Pike. We want to see what's at the end. I can't tell you how happy this goofy plan made me. It brought back memories of summer road trips with my parents, riding in our Rambler sometimes to visit historical sites, sometimes just to go for a drive. I'd stretch out on the back seat and read a Nancy Drew mystery until we made our favorite pit stop at Howard Johnson's for fried clams and Cokes.
Richard Ratay shares some of the same nostalgia-glazed, gas-guzzling memories. His book "Don't Make Me Pull Over!" is a very breezy history of the family road trip, which had its heyday - at least for some Americans - from the 1950s into the '70s. That's when the country's first major oil crisis as well as the Airline Deregulation Act put a dent into the romance of the road. Ratay grew up in Wisconsin. And some of the most charming sections of his book are those in which he recalls his family driving southward every winter. The youngest of four siblings, Ratay would scramble - sans seatbelt, of course - into the back window ledge of the luxury cars his father favored, cars like the Lincoln Mark V Bill Blass edition, a chrome-bespeckled behemoth that Ratay says seemed built to the same specifications as a U.S. naval destroyer. Detouring off memory lane, Ratay also explores byproducts of midcentury America's love of driving - for instance, the introduction of national motel chains and the Old West craze of the 1960s, which gave us restaurants like the Chuck Wagon and Bonanza Steakhouse.
But perhaps Ratay's most poignant cultural observation is the one he opens and closes his book on. Ratay says that unlike plane trips, those long car rides of yore, in which families traveled without the distraction of smartphones or DVD players, were less about the destination than the journey. In simply making the drive together, he says, we were already in the best place of all.
There's travel via the open road, and then there's travel via the open book. For the past five years, a small press called Belt Publishing has been bringing out intriguing nonfiction books about the Midwest. Now they've started a new series called Belt Revivals to publish classic Midwestern fiction as well as nonfiction. The first two books to appear are "Poor White," a 1920 novel by Sherwood Anderson, whom many readers know for his short story collection "Winesburg, Ohio," and "Main-Travelled Roads" by Hamlin Garland, a writer barely anybody knows anymore. I hope this new addition changes things because Garland's short stories are vivid and tough in their take on the realities of Midwestern farm life, especially for women.
Garland was born in Wisconsin but moved to Boston, where he became a teacher. In the 1880s, Garland traveled back to visit his family, who were then living in South Dakota. Those trips inspired the stories collected here. In his preface, Garland writes of finding his mother imprisoned in a small cabin on the enormous, sunburned, treeless plain with no expectation of ever living anywhere else. Her neighbors were all housed in the same unshaded cabins in equal poverty and loneliness. The intensity of Garland's grief over his mother's lot clearly got channeled into stark stories like "Mrs. Ripley's Trip," which opens in a Midwestern shanty on a blustery night in November. Old Mrs. Ripley tells her husband that, you'll have to do your own cooking from now on to New Years. I'm going back to York state.
It turns out Mrs. Ripley has been putting aside small change for 28 years, and she finally has enough money to visit her family in New York. What's so powerful about this story is its quietness. When weeks later, Mrs. Ripley returns to that shack, silently puts her apron back on and starts scrubbing dishes, it's as though she's made a poetic declaration of love for the husband and grandchild she left behind.
Garland's Midwest is a place devoid of the usual tourist attractions, but the lesser-known America depicted in his stories, as well as the lighter-hearted landscape of Ratay's road trips are both well worth a detour.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Don't Make Me Pull Over!" by Richard Ratay and "Main-Travelled Roads" by Hamlin Garland. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with singer and songwriter John Prine, or with New York Times reporter David Sanger about his new book on cyberwar, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Seth Kelley. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
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