A masterpiece from rural Iowa

I’m reading a very perceptive book by one of Iowa’s truly gifted writers.

Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times newspaper, won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing last year for his series about the lawsuit between the Des Moines Water Works and Buena Vista, Pocahontas and Sac counties over pollution of the Raccoon River from drainage districts in those counties.

A week after his Pulitzer was announced, Art received calls from New York publishers asking if he would like to write a book. They wanted to publish it, and offered him a handsome advance if he would agree and give them the publishing rights.

Art hadn’t thought about a book. 

It was tough enough to put out the Storm Lake Times on a shoestring budget. Deadlines and cash crunches filled his days and hours. 

But as he thought about it, and as his brother John, publisher of the Times, urged him on, Art realized he had some things to say that wouldn’t fit in a newspaper story or in his regular column.

So he batted out “Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper.”

It’s magnificent.

“Storm Lake” hit the bookstores this past Tuesday. I was the lucky recipient of an advance copy that Jefferson Herald co-owner Doug Burns had received early on from Art.

The book is particularly meaningful for me, since Cullen writes about his newspaper career, his return to his hometown and the past and future of that community, as well as the histories and stories of inhabitants of the Buena Vista County area. 

It’s a 300-page compendium of natural history, tribal journeys, local history, unique characters, political movements and politicians, farming trends, autobiography and much more. 

Cullen pulls no punches on what he sees as the good and the bad of life in rural Iowa. His thumbnail sketches of key Iowa politicians over the past 50 years are spot on.

One of the beauties of the book is the fierce protectiveness Cullen holds for the Storm Lake community, then and now. He is particularly proud of how the community has stepped up to accommodate itself to the large influx of immigrants who produce Storm Lake’s food processing plants’ output, together with their families. 

The result of that welcome is that Storm Lake is one of the few rural Iowa towns that are growing in population. 

Some 30 languages are spoken in Storm Lake schools, and 90 percent of the elementary school students are from immigrant families. Young people in Storm Lake are growing up with first-hand knowledge of multiple ethnic traditions, something that few other Iowa communities can provide.

For wordsmiths, of course, another beauty of “Storm Lake” is Cullen’s rapier wit, delivered in delightfully fearless prose. 

An example:

“Iowa produces more renewable energy per capita than any other state; half of our electricity now comes from wind turbines. We are first in that, in corn and hogs, and in elderly and wrestling, and in almost every other category we are thirty-seventh. We like being thirty-seventh. It keeps us out of the way of Texas. We used to be first in education. Governor Branstad decided to catch up to Texas on the way to the bottom by burning the school budget over the past twenty years.”

The bottom line for the book, and its basic message, in my opinion, is Cullen’s deep and unshaken love for rural Iowa, the people and the values that have shaped it, and the importance of protecting and nurturing it for the future. 

For me, “Storm Lake” offers a clear-eyed picture of our rural Iowa culture, how we got to our present situation and some suggestions for how to move forward with confidence. 

It’s a must-read for people who care about community.

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