Migration — State by State

One of my most thrilling recent discoveries was the online version of the Louisiana: A Guide to the State by the Federal Writers’ Project. It offers a great 1930s and 1940s-era snapshot of my grandparents’ hometown of Abbeville and of my dad’s hometown of New Iberia. In general it is a wonderful back-in-time travel guide, though the chapter on food still rocks, while Neanderthals are more contemporary than the chapter titled “Racial Elements,” with its list of blood quantum for people with a drop or more of African blood.

The federal government hired famous or soon to be famous people to write many of the guides. John Cheever and Richard Wright appear in the pages. This effort was part of Roosevelt’s bail-out plan when the economy tanked 70 years ago. Let’s hope that this new crisis will produce equally magnificent efforts to help people and will produce equally stunning results. But that’s all history.

Imagine my delight when I discovered a new and updated guide to the USA. State by State is the brainchild of Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey who started with “a hunch and a conviction.” It pairs today’s A and B list authors with likely and unlikely locales. Heidi Julavits lived in, left, and returned to Maine and still marvels at the strange habits of the natives.

From Mohammed Naseehu Ali we learn that the people of northern Michigan resemble the Housa of his native Ghana in generosity and patience. And it is reassuring to know that small town America can be accepting. Like Ali, Ha Jin and his family found a welcome from their neighbors in a white Georgia suburb. He displays a trait rare in America these days, though, by investing in a house he can afford and not buying a McMansion.

And I am happy to add that Joshua Clark’s version of Louisiana is a lot more voodoo and a lot less Kingfish than the 1930s story.

David Rakoff’s riff on the wide open spaces of Salt Lake City reminded me of an acting teacher (a New Hampshire native) who left an otherwise rewarding job in Oklahoma because his students’ sense of personal space was so huge they avoided occupying the same Zip code. He couldn’t get his students within hugging distance of each other! Somehow all that open space let people keep a circle of a few hundred feet around them. Meanwhile, New England folk were crowded by trees, buildings, etc. And New Yorkers – well anyone who has ever ridden the subway at rush hour knows there’s no such thing as personal space.

Rick Moody seems to think that the beautifully designed Merritt Parkway defines my home state of Connecticut. The road is now more often a parking lot than a spot for leisurely Sunday afternoon motoring. On those rare occasions when it’s not clogged, it is great fun to drive in a sports car. Trouble is, it occupies Fairfield County, the part of the state the rest of considers more New York than New England.

And then there’s … I’m having so much fun reading these entries it’s interfering with my writing. So that’s all for today, folks!

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