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On WID's Bookshelf: Driftless.


Written by David Rhodes

Reviewed by Patricia Flatley Brennan, professor of nursing and industrial engineering, and theme leader of WID’s Living Environments Laboratory

“The book is actually a collection of stories, but the stories are interconnected, so it reads both a like a novel and set of short stories. It is an incredible view of a region in southwest Wisconsin called the ‘Driftless Area’ that is very strange and very beautiful and very wonderful. It’s the part of Wisconsin that was never glaciated, so that’s why it’s called ‘driftless,’ because there’s no ice drifting over it. It has beautiful rolling hills — not the big gashes in the Earth like you have in the Wisconsin Dells. It’s also a very rural part of the state that’s sometimes thought of as a very poor part of Wisconsin, although the farmland is really quite rich and there’s some wonderful, very beautiful verdant farms down there.

The stories take place in small fictitious town and focus on the people in the town and their interactions with each other. What’s quite powerful is, first of all, the fact that the writing is exceptionally beautiful. The author has a beautiful way with words, so just reading the way he phrases things allows you to not only see what he’s seeing, but also to be in the scene with him.

It’s a book that conveys a sense of place more than other books I’ve read without describing the environment. It conveys a sense of place through the actions and interactions of the people. The author introduces you to the geography of the place not by describing the fields, but describing how people move through the space, which just gives this marvelous sense of place. The book is not a morality tale, but it’s really filled with moral dilemmas and judgment and experience. These people appear on the surface to live very simple lives in this very small town, being constrained by the fact that they’re isolated and removed from large cities in the state. They live these lives with complexity and have so much to say to us.

At my lab in WID’s Living Environments Laboratory, we’re interested in how the environment in which people experience health activities can be more effective in drawing them towards good health. In our research, we introduce people to whole other environments. So when you read about the structure of the houses in Rhodes’ writing, or the relationship between the houses and farms, you get a sense of the intimate spaces being very different than when you’re in a very urban area, where you’re dealing with houses with really well-defined boundaries, or families that are clearly identified as units.

The region described in this book has always mesmerized me. There are visions that I’ve had that this book actually brought to more explicit consciousness — things that I had seen and felt but had not been able to express. So it’s good for some of the things that we do from a research perspective: to better understand how people perceive our physical and constructed environments, and how that affects the way people live and experience each other and how they live their ‘health’ lives.

I think this book is first and foremost for people who want to learn more about Wisconsin. I believe the book is also for people who just like good writing. It’s just a really well written book. For me, it’s like Bel Canto, or other books I’ve read where I just wanted to watch the words because they’re just so interesting. It’s a book to be held. Don’t read it on a Kindle! It needs a physical experience to really enjoy it!”

Read the book.

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