Review: The Lies of the Land Is a Lopsided But Informative Read

Like many history books, Steven Conn’s The Lies of the Land: Seeing Rural America For What It Is—And Isn’t is a showcase of and argument for nuanced thinking. In his attempt to reveal the reality of rural America, Conn corrects lies, turns tables, and unveils truths. There are gobs of information, that’s evident. Though one wonders how it would improve with a little more panache.

The problem in America, according to Conn, is this: popular perceptions about rural life are distorted by historical amnesia, misinformation, and nostalgic thinking. “Those places have become blank screens,” Conn contends, “onto which we project any number of our own fantasies—about ‘moral coherent’ communities, about simpler living away from the stresses of the contemporary world, about what it means to be somehow more authentically American.”

Conn detonates misconceptions like the coal mines of West Virginia. Nothing is as it seems. America’s proud history as a farming paradise is a fiction; farm goods were entrenched in the world economy, not to mention the slave trade, by the time of our nation’s founding. Rather than being independent from federal oversight, rural America is a major recipient of federal funding through the military. Bing, bam, boom. Conn never saw a bubble he couldn’t burst.

From an information standpoint, the book is a total success. Having given Conn 262 pages of my time, I have no doubt his information is well sourced and have now adopted many of the viewpoints he outlined. The book, however, due to poor organization and just-OK writing, fails as a piece of entertainment.

Perhaps his biggest mistake is one of organization. The Lies of the Land splits into four parts, with each section highlighting the rural influence of a different institution. But the first section “Militarized Space” is clearly the most remarkable and dramatic. The rest of the book, unfortunately, can’t compare.

In “Militarized Space” Conn presents rural America’s origin story as a military project. Soldiers murdered native populations to create the space for an agricultural economy. The Army Corps of Engineers transformed the spaces to support towns, and today rural America’s wealth intertwines so closely with the military industrial complex that Red states are compelled to support the military wherever that may lead.

“The South, it is probably fair to say, became the first region of the country to become dependent on federal money to such an extent,” Conn writes, “creating what the historian Bruce Schulman has cleverly called ‘the military-payroll complex.’ And as James Sparrow has persuasively argued, World War II also effectively created a ‘warfare state’ that was not rolled back once the war was over.”

Maybe it’s immature to think of war as history’s main character. But what are the other options? In “Militarized Space” we get Conn’s most exciting ideas. Not only does he throw a pie in the face of anyone who says the South is a bastion of small government, he also explores all the messy themes inherent to war stories. Predatory recruitment, dead siblings, broken families. It’s heavy stuff.

One cannot be blamed for finding the successive sections—which cover issues related to industrialization, outlet stores, and suburbanization—a little lackluster. Moreover, in these dryer topics Conn betrays his greatest frailty: his writing is a little weak.

Take for example these two sentences near the close of Conn’s chapter on the Turner family’s Dollar Store: “For well over a century, rural poverty has been viewed as a crisis demanding a solution, an aberration from the natural order of things. For Turners, it has proved a golden opportunity.”

It’s fine insofar that it delivers a perspective. But critical readers may retract points for unoriginality. Cliches such as “the natural order of things” and “golden opportunity” should be eliminated on the second pass. We’ve read them so often we don’t even read them anymore; to include overused language only serves to disengage the reader. Especially in the age of artificial intelligence, we should all be critical of the knee-jerk urge to regurgitate the most obvious thing. It’s a little lazy and does a disservice to seriousness of Conn’s subject.

There’s no consensus on whether historians should dance for our attention. Must Conn be a showman as well as a historian? Many readers, I’m sure, are just here for the information. So long as Conn delivers the facts—and he most certainly does—there’s no reason to complain. But, for me at least, reading Conn’s book felt a little like water skiing. It’s exciting when you first get into it but, after a little while, you realize the initial thrill is gone, and you can only expect more of the same.

The Lies of the Land: Seeing Rural America For What It Is—And Isn’t is available at bookstores and through the University of Chicago Press website.

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Adam Kaz