I'm going to admit up front that as a dyed-in-the-wool third generation Democrat raised in one of the reddest parts of my home state, I was initially put off both by the title and a lot of the tone in Red Highways. The author, Rose Aguilar, is a progressive radio host in that most progressive of American cities, San Francisco, and in her first foray into the publishing world, she decides to undertake a journey (a liberal one, as you can see by the subtitle) into America's "heartland." As if (a) no liberals are there; (b) and she's going to study the conservative heartland natives like they're some freakish tribe just discovered on the banks of the upper Amazon, and she'll interpret their puzzling behavior for us. This tone is scattered throughout the book, with the most irritating tone tic being in the repeated complaints about not being able to find vegan food in places like the Texas panhandle or the backwoods of Mississippi.
Additionally, Aguilar's narrative skills are, to be kind about it, pedestrian. The parts of this book where she accounts scenery, character description or any other sort of travelogue-ish details is flat. If readers come to this book wanting a Bill Bryson or (less comedic choice here) Paul Theroux-style getting-to-know-the-country-and-its-inhabitants, disappointment awaits.
Still, I'm going to recommend this book. Here's why: As a radio personality, Aguilar seems to have a knack for getting all kinds of people to open up and discuss politics and political views. Her questioning skills appear to be stellar, because there are heartening and surprising oral stories that get told here that really are fascinating, backing up anecdotally what a lot of polls are showing -- that people are shifting away from the poles of the traditional conservative/liberal divide and are coming up with hybrids (mostly fiscally conservative, socially liberal).
Aguilar's journey from San Francisco to the "heartland"--Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Montana, Utah--is undertaken in a beat-up VW van picked up off of Craig's List, with her boyfriend, Ryan, serving as helpmeet along the way. Part of the ongoing interplay between the two is Ryan's quick temper and eagerness to pick political fights and convert folks along the way (he'd make the ideal Kossack in this regard), and Aguilar's more patient (and professional, one assumes) ability to poke a bit and get a tale to unfold from people who are initially reluctant to talk to such a stereotypically "liberal" pair. At times, Aguilar forbids Ryan from entering some venues or approaching certain interviewees; other times, he accompanies her to somewhat riotous effect, such as when he almost starts a fight at a gun show.
But it's Aguilar's interviewing and genuine interest in the lives of her subjects that makes this book worth reading. Like Studs Terkel, she clearly has a way not only with eliciting stories, but in choosing what to include and exclude in the resultant product. She goes to church and talks to fundamentalist church-goers, even being invited back to their homes. She goes to bars, gun shows, patriotic celebrations. She strikes up conversations in convenience stores, at gas stations, at hometown celebrations. She talks to Democrats who feel stranded and beseiged in a sea of conservative politics, she talks to Republicans who'd die before voting Democratic -- but who profess most of the more progressive party's beliefs.
Disdain of Washington, distrust of both political parties (from members of both), loathing of corporations and a feeling from people in these red states that they have more in common with their fellow Americans than the media typically portrays shines through all of Aguilar's encounters. In fact, it would be safe to say that if one theme dominates the book, it's that everyone encountered in the pages, including Aguilar herself and her boyfriend, feel seriously misunderstood. There's a sense that there is, floating above the reality of this country, a media-driven picture of something called "America"-- and then there is America itself, jumbled, contradictory, ornery, well-meaning even when misinformed and misguided. A lot of the Republicans the author encounters, for example, are sick to death of their party's emphasis on abortion and homosexuality, but stick with the party out of tradition, while resenting the media assumption that all Republicans feel this way.
Ultimately, this is an uplifting and caring book that gives voice to the unvoiced and that takes most of its power from Aguilar's ability to get out of the way of her subjects and just prod them along. This is no small gift for any author to be able to claim. Despite the objections I made up top here, Red Highways is a gratifying read, full of life and homespun grit, filled from front to back with people who are trying their best to keep their heads above water, who love this country and who are trying to retain a little bit of dignity in the process of getting by.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.