Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town (Reding)

The book is heavy on the death part. What people do to themselves, to their children never ceases to astonish and disgust me. But Reding wants us to take a step back. What have other factors – familiar ones like the loss of industry and less familiar ones like Big Ag and Big Pharma done to places, the Rockwellian notion of small town that Oelwein, Iowa symbolizes for Reding. This story, Reding repeatedly strives to make clear, is not about Oelwein, but it is about all of us.

There are small victories, small moments of life. Jobs return. The number of Mom ‘n Pop meth labs decrease. Downtowns grow. But these victories are small. The two big industries noted above as well as the Mexican drug cartels have us beaten. CVS won’t refuse us cold medicine even if they could prove we’d bought too much in too short a time.

Progress is made – there are heroes, both local and (inter)national, but the drug cartels not only catch up, they anticipate. Are problems really getting solved or are they just moved? Meth is known as an American drug; it was once recommended as a way to get yourself to work harder, longer. Now, like the story of Monsanto where Reding’s father worked for many years, it has grown too big. So much has gotten away from us.

It was a bit of a slog to get through this one. Reding is unable to sustain much narrative momentum. Perhaps there are too many strands. Perhaps he was just overwhelmed by all of it. I certainly was.

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