Review by Annette Gallagher Weisman, Special to the Times
In Print: Sunday, February 8, 2009

When times are stressful, it’s a relief to read a book that’s uplifting. Doug Bauer’s portrayal of the people and place that shaped him is a deceptively simple story about human bonding and a deep respect for the land. The University of Iowa Press says about Bauer’s Prairie City, Iowa: Three Seasons at Home, “We like to keep important works in print,” which is why after 20 years it has been republished, with a coda worth waiting for.

Prairie City is a small town—a very small town. When Bauer was a boy in the 1950s and ’60s, it was eight blocks or so in either direction, surrounded by farmland. Bauer’s father spent long days tending 140 acres at the mercy of the weather, but Bauer himself was no farmer: “I was awkward with machines and the soil.” Yet he was happy and at 18 found it scary leaving for Drake University, 20 miles away in Des Moines.

In 1975, Bauer, a magazine writer and recently divorced, returned to Prairie City to reconnect with his roots and write about the experience. During nine months there, Bauer helps with farm work and tends bar at the local tavern, conversing with everyone from the auto mechanic to the postmaster. They know he’s a writer, but he knows they don’t see it as a real job. “Work is measured here in bushels, head, acres, miles per day behind a wheel.”

As for elections, Prairie Citians dislike “preening that insults the plains sensibility” but understand a man who “sacrificially agrees to run.” For its mayoral election in 1975, Erlene Ververka was a write-in candidate. “Men gathered in small groups to consider alternatives,” offering comments ranging from “She’s quite a gal” to “We can’t hack her.” Ververka might as well have been running for president or vice president this year.

Bauer’s observations pinpoint what the heart of the heartland is all about. With its unique characters, the book would make a brilliant play: The scenes are rich, the dialogue true, funny and moving, and the writing as good as it gets.

Annette Gallagher Weisman is a freelance writer.