Something to Write Home About
Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind
by Grace Olmstead
Sentinel, 256 pp., $27
Love for a particular place is essential to write well about it. The cultural memoir, which blends autobiography with criticism, seems a natural vehicle for this kind of devotion. One of the most widely read cultural memoirs in recent years, J.D. Vance’s 2016 Hillbilly Elegy, achieved its success in no small part because of the author’s love for the people of the Rust Belt and Appalachia. For a population so accustomed to policy wonks controlling the national conversation about their home, Vance’s memoir was no doubt a fresh breath of air.
Yet we would be wrong to equate love with accuracy. Love can blind one to those elements of a person or place that it might be uncomfortable to see clearly, or that do not comport with one’s desired storyline. Vance’s book faced this criticism for his decision to examine the collapse of personal virtues of Appalachians at the expense of the collapse of the economic scaffold of the region. Whether intentional or not, this loosening of story from history allowed Vance’s narrative (and Vance himself, as Mona Charen recently noted) to be pressed into service for the Trumpian right, which desired both the support of Vance’s subjects and the maintenance of the corporate status quo.
Raised in a farming family in the Mountain West, the conservative journalist Gracy Olmstead certainly knows and loves her childhood home. In Uprooted, she examines her Idaho hometown to reveal the costs of large-scale agriculture and government policy on the livelihood of farming and the community. Unlike Vance, she chooses to examine both the people and the economy of rural America. Olmstead’s book, part memoir and part social science, draws our attention to the small-scale, and, in doing so, advocates for a conservatism that actually prioritizes conservation—of the land, culture, and community.
Olmstead’s story begins with a dilemma, rooted in her love for her town of Emmett, Idaho. Like many small rural communities, Emmett has declined in recent decades, both culturally and economically. Large numbers of young people have left in search of better opportunities, including Olmstead herself, who is a journalist living in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. Though she and her husband have started a family and begun to lay down their own roots in their new home, her concern for her old one, and her guilt for leaving it, continue to gnaw at her. If she cares so much about Emmett, she asks herself, why doesn’t she move back? Uprooted is her “exercise in discernment.”
Framed by this choice about her own future, Olmstead examines her family’s past. At its center is her great-grandfather, “Grandpa Dad.” Born in Idaho in 1911, Grandpa Dad embodied every quality that Olmstead admires about the Emmett of the past. The child of apple farmers, Grandpa Dad started his own small livestock farm in the depths of the Great Depression. He worked tirelessly, jury-rigging cast-off farm equipment to save money and digging irrigation ditches by hand. Farming was not very profitable, but Grandpa Dad wasn’t in it for the money.
Like many members of his generation whom Olmstead remembers fondly, Grandpa Dad was a “sticker” rather than a “boomer.” The terms come from Wallace Stegner: While “boomers” jump from place to place seeking short-term gain, “stickers” are in it for the long haul. Though “stickers” are usually nobodies in the eyes of the world, according to Olmstead, they often embody personal virtue, the rejuvenation of which is essential to the author’s vision of a healthy society—one marked by a long-term commitment to the well-being of particular places.
Olmstead’s devotion to that place drips from the pages. Her strongest writing describes the beauty of the valley in which she was raised. We learn of the rich loam on the “bench” of the valley, and are introduced to the “diverse tapestry” of its wild grasses, whose deep roots are essential for the long-term health and stability of the soil. We feel the firm, gleaming flesh of the valley’s famous cherries as they “cascade down from tree branches in thick, grapelike clusters.” We witness the changing seasons in height of corn rows, framed by the Rocky Mountain foothills, whose color shifts with the passage of the sun. Olmstead’s descriptions of her home are both elegiac and informative, revealing her deep understanding of and love for the land.
Though Olmstead’s glowing descriptions of her home are often colored by nostalgia, her account of its declining health is not exaggerated. Small farmers have struggled to survive. The “diverse tapestry” has given way to monocultures that take nutrients from the soil without putting them back in. Though in many ways a conservative thinker, Olmstead places the blame on conservative fiscal principles: “This valley’s transformation over the past two centuries has not been the benign work of an invisible hand. It was the result of deliberate choices to maximize profit rather than embrace limits, to prioritize ‘progress’ over rootedness.” She points especially to the government’s disproportionate subsidizing of the nation’s largest agricultural companies. The free market, she argues, is anything but free.
For at least a hundred years, Olmstead argues, our nation’s agricultural policy has treated the soil as an expendable resource, with no regard for its long-term health. During and after World War I the federal government encouraged the production of wheat, whose shallow root systems led to the erosion of topsoil and the devastation of the Dust Bowl. The growth of the agricultural export market increased crop homogeneity even further, and small farms had trouble staying solvent. “Get big or get out” was the motto, and profit margins grew ever thinner for those farms that survived: Farmers now make 15 cents on every dollar spent on food, down from 37 cents in the 1980s. Start-up costs for would-be farmers are prohibitively high, despite recent programs introduced by the USDA.
Who can make it in the current climate? Olmstead profiles small farmers in Emmett who are able to carve out a place for themselves among the agricultural giants. Though she highlights some innovative enterprises, their business model seems tenuous. The Williams family grows produce, but they have to sell it in the city—their prices are too high for those who live in Emmett to afford. The Dill family raises grass-fed beef and produce on their farm, using ingenuity to conserve water and fuel expenses. Devout Christians with a self-proclaimed mission to “reinvent the American Dream,” Olmstead calls them “ideological and spiritual heirs” of her Grandpa Dad. Yet despite their idealistic spirit, they often wonder if they should sell it all and move. Suburban sprawl threatens their land, and profit margins are too small, even for their successful farm. Olmstead laments that being a “sticker” is not enough—that “too much has been lost.”
Olmstead’s position as a right-leaning critic of capitalism places her in the company of a small but vocal group of American religious conservatives like Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher. Her careful tracing of the deleterious effects of fiscal policy and big business on the land makes her critique more trenchant (and less belligerent) than that of many of her peers. She cites Robert Nisbet to emphasize the atomizing effects of capitalism and Wendell Berry to compare the health of the household with the ecosystem. At times she sounds like Pope Francis in Laudato Si’; at others like Hillary Clinton: “the family is just one form of membership.” Above all, she suggests, capitalism tends to isolate us—from our roots in the land and one another.
In addition to unchecked capitalism, Olmstead attributes the decay of Emmett to another deeply American quality: an “extremely independent spirit.” Wary of regulation and government interference of any kind, Emmett’s residents, though personally generous, seem to demonstrate little awareness of the connection Olmstead lays out between the blind pursuit of profit and the long-term health of the land.
Though Olmstead is right to identify Idaho’s libertarian spirit as a major contributor to its natural and cultural decline, she does little to examine its manifestation in the individuals she profiles. Only at the end of the book, after nearly two hundred pages of hagiographical depictions of her Grandpa Dad, does she acknowledge that his own reluctance to include others in the management of his farm prevented it from being successfully passed down through the generations. Also, she largely neglects Idaho’s politics. Eighty percent of the residents in Emmett’s county voted for Donald Trump in 2020, up from 75 percent in 2016. Olmstead laments that Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, championed the “get big or get out” attitude responsible for the death of small farmers. Yet she is reluctant to probe the contradiction at the heart of the matter—why do Emmett residents overwhelmingly support the very political mentality that has ravaged their home?
Like that of many postliberal religious conservatives, Olmstead’s critique of liberal modernity sidesteps the contradictions of democracy. It’s essential to point out what’s wrong with society and suggest policies that would improve it. But in a democracy, progress toward those policies involves the messiness of compromise. One wishes Olmstead had done more in her book to wrestle with the distance between what Idaho’s small towns need and what its residents actually believe and vote for.
A cultural memoir requires a clear-headed examination of both social structure and lived experience. Though Olmstead balances these better than Vance, she fails to show us the staunch individualism of Emmett’s residents up close, choosing instead to chastise from a distance. She no doubt loves her hometown, but to understand it, we need a better view of its contradictions.
Paradoxically, it is only by leaving Idaho—by being a “boomer” herself—that Olmstead gains the perspective necessary to understand the value of sticking. In the end, returning to her framing narrative, Olmstead chooses to remain on the East Coast, at least for now. In doing so, she advocates for an alternative to the boomer-sticker dichotomy: to live as a “perennial,” one “learn[s] to stick” wherever he or she happens to be. Though our efforts to this end may be imperfect, she argues, “love suggests that we ought to keep trying anyway: to keep sowing seeds of service and generosity in the lands we love.”
Uprooted is an important read for those who care about rural America, or the future of conservatism. Olmstead’s insights into the problems facing American agriculture are not new, but her memoir succeeds in rooting them in a particular place and weaving them into a compelling narrative. When it succeeds, her book marries the best of Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry, Edmund Burke and Wallace Stegner, and does much to advocate for a conservatism rooted in the health of the land rather than the bank accounts of industry executives. Even if she doesn’t examine Idaho’s paradoxes deeply enough, Olmstead, in tracing her roots in the people and soil she loves, has sown her own generous seeds. And that is where any hope for renewal must begin.