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DENISON, Iowa Searching for the Soul of America Through the Secrets of a Midwest Town

By Dale Maharidge 259 pages. $25. Free Press. *

Reviewed by William Grimes


Denison, Iowa, has a motto, painted right on the town water tower: "It's a Wonderful Life." It's an allusion. Donna Reed, who starred in the film of the same name, grew up on a farm just outside Denison, a town of about 8,000 that, in its heyday, could have served as a stand-in for the movie's fictional Bedford Falls.

Delete the reference, and the motto takes on a poignant double meaning in Dale Maharidge's revealing portrait of a representative small town in the American heartland. In Denison, the wonderful life began disappearing 20 years ago for the workers in its meatpacking plants, where competition within the industry forced wage cuts. Young people no longer stay in Denison. For them, the future looks bleak, but for a new wave of mostly Mexican immigrants, many fleeing crime and $5-an-hour jobs in California, the upbeat message on the water tower seems like the unvarnished truth. They have no idea who Donna Reed was, but Denison, with its plants paying $8 to $10 an hour, and its safe neighborhoods, looks a lot like the promised land.

Maharidge, the author of "And Their Children After Them," a study of the Alabama families photographed by Walker Evans, lived for a year in Denison, a town he selected more or less at random. If the subtitle of "Denison, Iowa," is to be taken literally, he spent his time "Searching for the Soul of America," accompanied by his photographer partner, Michael Williamson.

Fortunately, he did no such thing. Instead, he wandered around talking to people. He sat in on the English classes taught at night by Georgia Hollrah, a volunteer determined to help Denison's new arrivals. He spent time with Luis Navar, a go-getter from Mexico trying to get a foothold as the town's first Latino contractor, and he attended endless City Council meetings watching the mayor trying to sell an ambitious redevelopment scheme aimed at reversing Denison's decline.

By making the rounds, talking and listening, Maharidge got his best material. "Denison, Iowa" comes to life when the townspeople reflect on their struggles, their hopes and their fears. "We're a microcosm in an area that's not used to it," the high school principal says, reflecting on Denison's difficulties in assimilating Hispanic immigrants. "They're used to it on the coasts. We just happen to be an early part of the change here in the Midwest. This is what America is going to be everywhere."

When Maharidge keeps his nose to the ground he does fine. When he steps back to look at the big picture he often stumbles. He spends a little too much time meditating on the town's history and the global economic forces roiling the American economy. Worse, Maharidge shifts from straightforward, first-person reporting in a series of quasi-fictional chapters featuring himself as a character called "the writer." Maharidge does his best work when he puts down the plain facts in plain English.

The facts are these. Denison, with its heavily German population, prospered as a farm town in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and then, as small family farms came under pressure after the Depression, recast its economy by setting up meatpacking plants in the 1950s.

Workers earned union wages. Downtown thrived. Then came the 1980s, and a disastrous strike at Farmland, a local meatpacking plant, that ended with workers taking a pay cut and the union more or less imploding. The disappearance of the old family farms, and a blue-collar work force earning less than blue-collar wages, spelled disaster.

Denison, in common with 40 percent of Iowa's cities, began losing population. "Besides beef and pork products, Denison's biggest export is young people," Maharidge writes. Immigration may very well be Denison's only hope. Hispanics now account for at least a third of its population, a trend that will only accelerate. Although minorities make up 20 percent of the high school population, they account for half of the kindergarten. Many local residents resent the newcomers, in a low-key Midwestern way. Latinos and whites, even in a town as small as Denison, live separate lives, separated by language and cultural misunderstanding.

As Maharidge tells it, the future lies not with Denison's Donna Reed festival, but in people like Luis Navar, who, in the book's final, hopeful pages, lands his first big construction project and may just be on his way to a wonderful life.

(C) 2005 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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