Writing a memorable memoir is not as easy as it may at first appear. You have to have memories that will interest you and a lot of others. Growing up in the bland, static grasslands of the Midwest, absent a murder, would not seem to fit the bill. But John Price, recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts fellowship and author of Not Just Any Land: A Personal and Literary Journey into the American Grasslands, seems to have succeeded in ennobling, through recollection, a selection of quiet vignettes about his life. He still resides in Iowa, only a few hours from where he grew up.
Price's expression is simple, at times elegiac, as he reveals the important pieces of his Midwestern life. “Titan” chronicles a family trip to visit his grandparents when it was obvious that his beloved grandfather was dying: "Grandpa hadn't made it very far into our conversation…he nodded off when I started talking about my college courses. I'd decided to let him sleep." Throughout the visit his Grandma scolds him for not spending enough time with Grandpa. "She believed that I was destined to save Grandpa, either through my future career as a doctor or just through the divine magic of my presence." In veiled denial of the end of their days together, his grandmother seeks a miracle. Price admits to himself that he is avoiding Grandpa because he realized that "I couldn't save him either."
“Love Mountain” is the thumbnail sketch of Price's courtship and marriage, metaphorically underscored by the several journeys he and Steph took together. Hiking was her passion, and she wanted her boyfriend to enjoy the outdoors like she did. But not the flat lands of Iowa. She took him west. On the banks of the Wind River, "my mind opened to the western space that seemed to enfold and define her." Perhaps at that moment he fell in love, though there were many times when he questioned the meaning of love – "so it wasn't a joy ride." One hiking exploit around Ross Fork Lake, Idaho, ended in ignominious failure. But they did get married and went on a honeymoon out west, to try again to hike up to Ross Fork Lake. Steph stopped to take photos and Price forged on, disregarding the map, and found himself alone, "halfway up the side of this cliff." He's sure he's going to die, but Steph talks him in. "Something has been forged here, a beginning." As good an omen as any for an enduring love.
In the title story, “Man Killed by Pheasant,” a chance run-in with a bird on a lonely stretch of road reminds the author that he and the wildlife are equally interlopers, "settlers" in the grasslands. He knows that it would be inauthentic to make more of the incident than what it was – a random accident, a young pheasant blowing into and then out of his car windows. But it was an awakening; he could have been killed, and that possibility is enough to set his mind whirring, generating philosophy and whimsy together.
This is a book for those who love the outdoors described sparely but sensitively by someone who loves it, too. It will help if your first close encounter with nature happened in Iowa, or contrariwise, if you've never seen the Midwestern landscape and want to see it through the eyes of a wry and wistful storyteller.