I was dead wrong.
I thought I knew who Iowa women were, what they were like. I grew up there. I went to college there. Many of my relatives and friends still live there. We interact on Facebook nearly daily, and I visit once a year.
Here I was, writing a series about a fictional small town in Iowa, Johnson Station, where a group of smart, progressive, do-something women band together to revitalize their town and save it from drying up and blowing away. These women fight bigotry, misogyny, racism, and intolerance and hatred of all varieties. They don’t lobby against immigrants, health care, or education, and they would never have allowed their children or grandchildren to chant “build the wall” in the school cafeteria. They wouldn’t arm themselves to the teeth and show up in rallies to support someone who bragged about abusing women, insulted people about their looks, or worship a Soviet dictator who interferes with an American election. They wouldn’t turn their backs on science or on participating as citizens of a global community.
They aren’t pitying themselves for the loss of jobs (while piling Chinese goods in the trunk of their Hyundai sedans at Wal-Mart) and whining that people who live on the coast have forgotten or don’t understand them. The women in my novels collect their talents, throw the lazy old guard in town aside, and make something happen. (Oh, it’s not that the old guard didn’t try to revive the town. Their ideas ran the gamut between putting a pot of petunias on the corner of Main and Second, and putting a pot of petunias on the corner of Main and Third.)
But when it came to creating my protagonists, I missed the mark. Or maybe I just underestimated how much my series IS fiction. I didn’t realize the degree to which the place has changed since I left the Midwest in 1990.
Now I find out that 53% of white women in America voted for Donald Trump. In the Midwest and in rural areas of the country, the percentage was much higher than that.
In a way, I guess, this proves that rural Americans are right about me, as one of those who live on the coasts: I did misunderstand them. Here’s my excuse: My friends and relatives still live in small towns and have worked hard their entire lives–some started their own businesses or worked along side their husbands on the farm. They made me see a different kind of reality. They didn’t vote for Trump.
So, bless them for giving me the optimism to fuel Gracie’s Revolution and Jackie’s Campaign. I wouldn’t have written these two books without it.
I know there are those who think I should remain optimistic about the future of Middle America. They really believe Trump will save them. But as Wall Street executive Stephen Rattner has pointed out, Trump’s proposed tariffs are predicted to cost 5 million U.S. jobs (not save them), and his deportation program to cost between $400 billion and $600 billion. Meanwhile, 51% of his tax cuts will go to the richest 1% of Americans, and his repeal of Obamacare will leave millions of rural Americans without health insurance.
“This much is certain: Mr. Trump’s proposals would confer vast monetary gains on wealthy Americans while leaving middle- and working-class Americans — his electoral base — further behind. For his supporters, the irony of a Trump victory is that they may end up even less well off,” Rattner wrote this week.
Facing that irony with the humility of one who got it all wrong, I have decided to change my strategy with the Johnson Station series. I was going to launch it with a big book tour, a book launch, radio interviews, and so on, all starting in Iowa. Now, I’m just going to quietly publish the first two books on Amazon in the next three months, and eventually finish the third. Instead of a story of triumph that I was planning to end the series with, I will have to change the ending. It won’t be as optimistic. Meanwhile, I’m moving on to a couple of new projects about places I do understand.
Clearly, there are Iowa women who will identify with my protagonists–they are like the women I know and love in Iowa. And, there is a character or two that Trump supporters will like and identify with as well: the ambitious, conservative politician Gregory, determined to turn the clock back, censor books in the town library, kick out immigrants, and take over the statehouse. I cringe to think that some will even like him after he rapes a young Hispanic girl and then argues that she’s exactly the kind of person he’s trying to protect the community from. (I created this character long before Donald Trump rose out of the ash heap of Iowa’s caucuses last winter.)
I hope that four or five people still read Gracie’s Revolution and Jackie’s Campaign. But, perhaps instead of calling them “contemporary women’s fiction” I should market them as “fantasy.”
I have agreed to post the following rebuttal or guest blog from one of my beta-readers, Rose Baldwin, who has read the first two novels in the Johnson Station series. Beta-readers are writers and volunteers whom you trust to help you fine-tune your novel before it is published. This is what she said:
You forgot your characters. You abandoned them. They ARE still there fighting their fight and now even you are abandoning them. They are more alone than ever—and I bet they are your readers. The women who voted for Trump wouldn’t have read you in the first place. They may not read at all. Your readers are still there and maybe it is a fantasy that good can win, but it is one that many of us nurture as a way to survive. So, do this if you want, but it is about you and your disloyalty to your characters when they need you most.
Your characters are the people who brought civilization and civility west. They grew the towns. Volunteered their time and talents. They lived within their means and found happiness in their place. The Trump supporters are everything they call others: Lazy. Entitled. Rude. Mean. And, in my mind, worst of all, willfully stupid.
Jackie ends on an upbeat, with the town and her sons showing potential. Book three can continue that optimism and then dash all hope once and for all, driving the entire cast of worthies to California to live the outcast’s life in a pink stucco house, while Iowa squanders its dwindling assets and becomes a wasteland for losers.
Rose’s book of short fiction, The Claire Stories is available on Amazon.com and Kindle.