When Phil Christman moved back to Michigan, his Texas-born wife had some questions. “She pressed me into service as a local explainer,” Christman writes in Midwest Futures, his terrific new book out April 7 (Belt Publishing). Christman found himself struggling to explain his home’s customs and core identity. His book revisits those themes, bouncing between the region’s past, present, and future. Midwest Futures is smart, humble, and darkly funny, just like the region it describes.
So when your wife asks about the Midwest, do you have a better reply?
I had to write 40,000 words to answer her!
There are so many surprising ideas in your answer, including the Midwest’s role in the creation of America’s always-on military.
In the 1780s, a lot of people didn’t want to ratify the Constitution because it had a provision for a standing army. That always struck me—what a different world. What conquered this opposition was a lot of people who had a lot of money tied up in land claims out West, in what we now call Ohio. They needed those claims to mean something, which meant kicking out the people who rightfully lived there. That’s where a new army could help.
And today that army consists of a lot of working-class Midwesterners.
Yep. The Midwest has become a staging ground for the post–“making things” economy, and in that economy the military is a way people can find a living wage and a feeling that they’re contributing.
So what do you want a Midwesterner to take from your book?
The idea that, over the next century or so, people and capital are both going to look at the Midwest very carefully. People will want to live here because our ruinous way of life is going to create a lot of refugees. At the same time, capital will want to profit off this huge stretch of land that’s relatively insulated from climate change. I think we need to prioritize the first set of claims.
What do you hope a non-Midwesterner takes from it?
Well, all of the above. But also a sense that we’re not boring, we’re not Clark Kent, we’re not raw material that needs to be sent out East to be developed into something useful.