Books

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

What may be the most common theme through Scenes from the Heartland is struggle and how a person maintains his or her dignity in its face. (There’s a reason why Benton’s work was so ideally suited to The Grapes of Wrath.) Baier Stein’s characters turn to the Bible, to the radio, to church groups, county fairs and dance halls to distract themselves. They fall in love or walk away from it, get trapped by their circumstances or make a break for it, without looking back to see whose heart they may be breaking. Again, these aren’t ideas that exist only in times past. There is a core of basic humanity in each story that resonates as loudly as ever.

Scenes from the Heartland is a slim volume; stories average less than twenty pages. This makes the book a marvelous option if, like me, you tend to read right before falling asleep. More importantly, it limits Baier Stein to telling only a finite piece, every word carefully crafted, of each of her character’s stories. In many cases, you don’t quite know what happens when a scene ends.

In a way, this make the experience richer. As Benton began each tale, and as Baier Stein populated and enhanced it, the reader is invited to finish it. Do characters who have left ever come back? Does a character who hopes to rekindle her marriage succeed? It’s left up to us to end the narrative.

Benton was an American pioneer. His work was the first of any American artist to be featured on the cover of Time magazine, and while he is often referred to as a “Regionalist,” he defies that narrow definition when his work is looked at as a whole. His style is not realistic or editorial like Norman Rockwell’s. His people are stylized, sinewy, and fluid. Nevertheless, his lithographs of everyday life in the rural Midwest of the last century feel achingly real. Each of them seems like the misleadingly simple start of a uniquely American fairytale  . . .

“Once upon a time, there was a little girl drawing water from a hand pump in front of an old house … ”

As a storyteller himself, I think Benton would appreciate what Baier Stein achieves in every story, on every page of Scenes from the Heartland.

Scenes from the Heartland will be published next month. You can pre-order a copy on Amazon.

 

 

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