A Long Way from Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland


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Roosevelt's Oval Office desk. This is where my mother and father were raised and came of age, at the height of the Depression.

Growing Up in the American Heartland

It is where I was born and spent the first twenty-two years of my life, and it remains always familiar, however long I have been away. Whenever I return, I try to imagine the struggles my parents and everyone else went through here in the thirties. That time formed them-and through them, it formed me. I am in awe of how they emerged, and I am grateful for their legacy, although I have been an imperfect steward.

I left in , hungry for bright lights, big cities, big ideas, and exotic places well beyond the conventions and constraints of my small-town childhood, but forty years later I still call South Dakota home. Time and distance have sharpened my understanding of the forces that shaped my parents' lives and mine so enduringly. Those forces are the grid on which I've come to rely, in good times and bad. In the late s, the Dakota Territory was one of the last frontiers in America, a broad, flat grassland where Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and their followers in the Sioux nation were hunters and warriors on horseback, determined to hold their land against the persistent invasion of white settlers who wanted to farm, ranch, and build towns along the railroad lines racing westward from the industrialized East and Midwest.

The Dakota Territory was divided into two states, one north and one south, in My ancestors were among the early settlers in what became South Dakota. His grandfather Richard P. Brokaw, the descendant of Huguenots who immigrated early to New York, had made his way to the southwestern Dakota Territory by covered wagon following the Civil War. He farmed and worked on the railroad before heading north in to found the town of Bristol and a small hotel, the Brokaw House, at the planned intersection of the north-south and east-west rail lines, eight years before statehood. My mother is the eldest daughter of Jim and Ethel Conley, who farmed south of Bristol.

Ethel took the train from Bristol to Minneapolis, her hometown, for Jean's birth; then mother and daughter returned to the remote corner of the prairie where Jim was tilling the ground behind teams of horses. In the summer of my mother and I returned to the northern plains, the womb of her life and mine, for a visit that was at once nostalgic, reassuring, and a commentary on the social and economic changes in this country in the second half of the twentieth century.

Many of the combines have air-conditioning and stereos in their cabs, to go with the computer monitoring systems that record the yield while the harvest is under way. Many of the smaller farms have been consolidated into larger tracts and organized as corporations with sophisticated business models relying on the efficiencies of mass production and the yield of genetically engineered grains.

Growing Up in the American Heartland in the Forties and Fifties

Much has changed, but still, a drought or a sudden hailstorm or a freak cold snap can undo all of the best planning and agriculture science. Modern technology hasn't completely eliminated what my mother remembers of the sweat and heartache required for a farmer's life. But it is a far different world than when I was a child.


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As a town kid, I was attracted to the farm only by the prospect of a horseback ride or the chance to drive a tractor. I had no inclination for the work, much of it unending and involving uncooperative livestock in a muck of mud and manure or working in fields beneath a blazing sun. South Dakota is two states, really, divided by the Missouri River. In a larger sense, the river also divides the Midwest from the Far West. East of the Missouri, in the midwestern half, small towns shaded by trees planted a hundred years ago are separated by clusters of farm buildings and quadrangles of tilled ground producing corn, soybeans, wheat, rye, and sunflowers.

As you move across the Missouri, into what we call West River country, the change is abrupt. On airplanes flying across South Dakota east to west, I like to tell my fellow passengers to watch the cultivated fields, the gold and green color schemes of corn and wheat, suddenly give way to the muted browns and the untilled sod once we cross the river. It is such a stunning change, it is as if someone flipped a page, and then another change comes two hundred miles farther.

At the very western edge of the state, the prairie breaks up into the arid and eerily beautiful Badlands and then gives way to the Black Hills, a small scenic mountain range the Sioux people called Paha Sapa, the most sacred of their land. I have lived and traveled in every quarter of the state, and I am constantly struck by the rawness of it all, even now, more than years after the first significant wave of white settlers began trying to tame it.

Even a summer night in a substantial dwelling in an established town can be a reminder of the primal forces of the old Dakota Territory when a storm blows up, filling the sky with mountainous thunderstorms and bowing the tall cottonwoods with cold winds that seem to begin somewhere near the Arctic Circle. I am particularly attached to the Missouri River, that ancient artery that begins in central Montana and powers its way north before beginning its long east-by-southeast trek across the flat landscape of the Dakotas and along the borders of Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri.

Large dams have slowed but not completely conquered the river of Lewis and Clark, the Sioux, the Crow, Omaha, and Santee tribes. Whenever I return to my home state I always try to swim in the river channel, just to feel its restless currents again, as a reminder of my early struggles to master them as a beginning swimmer. They taught me to understand force and use it to my advantage, taught me that to make progress often means giving a little. On this trip back to Bristol with my mother in , as I steered our rental car toward the distant eastern horizon, an old sensation returned. Up there in the northern latitudes, less than two hundred miles from the Canadian border, I feel as if I am riding the curvature of the earth, silhouetted against the sweeping arc of sky that so diminishes all below.

I have now lived two thirds of my life outside these familiar surroundings, yet whenever I return I am at peace, and always a little excited to know that this place has a claim on me. I am named for my maternal great-grandfather Thomas Conley, the son of Irish immigrants, who was working as a railroad conductor in St. Paul when he was attracted by the abundance of affordable farmland in Day County, South Dakota. Tom and his wife, Mathilda, moved in to Webster, the Day County seat, where Tom opened a saloon before moving on to a section and a half of prairie, acres, southwest of Bristol, where together he and Mathilda began farming with horse-drawn machinery.

Tom Conley, at six feet a tall man in those days, quickly established a reputation as a hardworking and efficient farmer who, according to local lore, took off only one day a year: On Independence Day he'd drive a horse-drawn wagon from the farm to Bristol's main street for the celebrations, shouting to everyone, "Hurray for the Fourth of July! One went on to law school and another to medical school. My mother's father, Jim, graduated from a pharmacy college in Minneapolis, but he preferred farming to pharmacy and returned to Day County with his bride, Ethel Baker, a handsome and lively daughter of a foreman at Pillsbury Mills in the Twin Cities.


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As a wedding present, Tom Conley gave his son and new wife as a wedding present a mortgaged quarter-section, treeless acres just north of his farm. It was so barren that Jim Conley often said it contained not even a rusty nail; black-and-white pictures from that time are startling in their bleakness. A quarter-section of land was the allotment that the seminal figure of prairie literature, Per Hansa, filed for when he took his family into the Dakota Territory, in O.

A Long Way from Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland - Tom Brokaw - Google Книги

Rolvaag's classic Giants in the Earth. Powerful winds, broad horizons, "And sun! And still more sun! It was little changed in the first quarter of the twentieth century, when my parents were youngsters. Just as for Per Hansa and his fellow Norwegian settlers, it was a demanding place, whatever the season, for those who came to farm or to establish the small towns where agriculture and commerce intersected across the grassland.

A Long Way from Home

It is a place that reflects a century of transformation in America. When my mother was born, in November , the world was in turmoil.

That same month Lenin took control of the Russian government and the Communist revolution was under way. The war was an international tragedy but a bonanza for American farmers, as they moved into mechanized equipment and turned their grain fields into the bread basket of the world. Farmland in the heart of the corn belt brought prices two and three times what they had been just three years earlier.

Jim and Ethel were making enough money to start a new home and buy a Model T, the little black car that was the centerpiece of Henry Ford's rapidly growing empire.

A LONG WAY FROM HOME: Growing Up in the American Heartland

Neither of my grandparents left behind a personal account of their hopes and dreams, but I suspect they thought the farm would become their life work. Instead, it became a heartbreaking burden. By they were trapped between a prolonged drought across the Great Plains and economic chaos in the international markets. Jim and Ethel, my mother, Jean, and her younger sister, Marcia, were hostage to the cruelties of what came to be known as the Great Depression.

Jim Conley admired Herbert Hoover, a native of nearby Iowa and a brilliant mining engineer who was an international hero for his organization of food programs for Europe following the devastation of World War I. The town was so rural, there was no TV until they moved to a Brokaw reports on himself. In this beautiful memoir, Tom Brokaw writes of America and of the American experience.

From his parents' life in theThirties, on to his boyhood along the Missouri River A Long Way from Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland. Reflections on America and the American experience as he has lived and observed it, by the bestselling author of The Greatest Generation. From his parents' life in theThirties, on to his boyhood along the Missouri River and on the prairies of South Dakota in the Forties, into his early journalism career in the Fifties and the tumultuous Sixties, up to the present, this personal story is a reflection on America in our time.

A Long Way from Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland A Long Way from Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland
A Long Way from Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland A Long Way from Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland
A Long Way from Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland A Long Way from Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland
A Long Way from Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland A Long Way from Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland
A Long Way from Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland A Long Way from Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland
A Long Way from Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland A Long Way from Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland
A Long Way from Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland A Long Way from Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland

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