‘Scenes from the Heartland’
Timeless Tales of a Time Gone By

Three years ago, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, hosted the first major exhibition of Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) in more than two decades. Specifically, it explored the connection between his work and Hollywood. The curators argued that Benton’s brief tenure in the silent film industry had given him an appreciation for storytelling that informed all of his work.

The exhibition, which went on to tour museums in Kansas City, Missouri; Fort Worth, Texas; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was organized by Benton’s diverse output, from colorful murals of 1920s Hollywood, to horrifying World War II propaganda posters, to book illustrations like his famous depiction of the Joad family for The Grapes of Wrath.

Toward the end of the exhibit were a number of his lithographs, quiet and humble compared with his vivid murals and posters of monstrous Japanese giants devouring Allied soldiers. The lithographs captured poignant, isolated moments in agricultural and small town America. They made art of the commonplace: farms and families, train stations and meeting houses.

These painterly snapshots were the inspiration for a new collection of short stories by award-winning author Donna Baier Stein.

For Scenes from the Heartland, Baier Stein selects nine of Benton’s lithographs and, starting with what the artist chose to depict, weaves an intricate tapestry of mothers, sons, fathers, and daughters, people struggling against any number of odds in the Midwest of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.

“My original intent,” explains the author, “Was to transport my imagination to a time and place radically different than my own. To escape the constraints of my own life experiences.” Starting with a print that hangs on her own wall, Baier Stein found inspiration time and again. “One by one, I chose a picture that engaged me. I began imagining lives for the people Benton had portrayed: Two women standing by a flooded river, looking at submerged houses and trees. A black fiddler sitting on a stool while a white couple and several women dance. A well-dressed man standing near the white carcass of a cow, suitcase dropped on the dirt road behind him, stroking his beard as he looks at a boarded-up shack. A man and a boy standing near an old gas station with a single pump, raising arms as a train rolls past in the distance. A mother embracing her son in a military uniform, as another train approaches.”

Benton chose to put his talents to work depicting the everyday. Channeling the artist, Baier Stein takes these ordinary people in situations that appear to be of little consequence, and elevates them so that they become heroes and heroines of their own stories.

So, the two women staring at the flood evolve into rivals at the local church, who reach an unspoken truce “in recognition of all they both had to lose.” The black fiddler becomes the target of a racist attack, only to be mended by one of the dancers who happens to be “a bonesetter.” The mother sending her son off to war becomes a symbol of the life she thought she’d live and how very different things had turned out.

In addition to pulling narratives out of Benton’s work, Baier Stein painstakingly researched rural life in Missouri and Arkansas during the years leading up to World War II. Her inclusion of real-life news stories and brand names gives her characters firm ground even as we’re invited into their hopes, dreams, and loves lost. Detailed descriptions of everything from a wrinkled dress (the little girl’s mother had recently died) to a gold filigree bracelet in a tiny blue velvet box (had her husband bought it for the fresh-faced new clerk at Woolworth’s?) make each story tangible and almost filmic — supporting, perhaps, the museum exhibition’s proposition about the influence movie-making had on Benton’s work.

Although the stories in Scenes from the Heartland take place nearly a century ago, the individual characters’ emotional lives are all too familiar and contemporary. Reading about the 1930s fiddler in 2019, it’s difficult to ignore recent headlines about a black actor who was the victim of a racist (and homophobic) attack. When a frustrated husband has his wife committed because she is suffering from depression after a miscarriage — “Your Msa has women’s problems,” Pa said. “Problems I ain’t got time for.” — you can reflect on how far women’s rights have come, or you can wonder why eighty years later, women’s health issues are still being debated. There may not be a draft, but tens of thousands of mothers still send their sons (and daughters) off to war. And, sadly, betrayal, infidelity, and emotional cruelty have never gone out of style.

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