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Is there an America? If so, where is it? These questions form the subtext of Ethan Casey’s 2013 book Home Free: An American Road Trip.
Over 3 1/2 months and more than 18,000 miles between Labor Day and Christmas 2012, during and just after the presidential election, Ethan drove clockwise through every region of the contiguous United States, starting and ending in his home city of Seattle. (“I wanted to get out of the liberal echo chamber,” he tells audiences.) His purpose was to do what reporters and travel writers should do, and what he had done previously in books about Pakistan and Haiti: show up on the ground in person, seek out interesting and representative people, listen to their stories and points of view, take notes, then later sit down and stitch together a coherent narrative. His intention was to catch history on the fly, and to craft a nonfiction narrative account of America circa 2012 that will echo forward and remain relevant and readable for years to come.
Ethan’s first destination was Wisconsin, where he grew up and the site of one of the most dramatic and telling confrontations in recent American political history: the occupation of the state capitol building in Madison by 80,000 protesters, in sub-freezing weather in early 2011. “I was proud, as a Wisconsinite, of what the occupation had expressed and represented,” he writes. “Anymore, though, I didn’t feel sure I knew where it would lead, or even where it should lead. Two things I did know were that Madison and Wisconsin are not the same thing, and that around half of Wisconsinites disagreed with the occupiers’ premises and goals. Right or wrong, that was something some of us were going to have to put in our pipe and smoke.”
Next he headed to Detroit, where he had spent a formative year and a half in the early 1990s. Two decades later, he met Detroiters black, white, and other still working hard to find and hold common ground in the most painfully American of American cities. One of these was Jeff Nelson, pastor at Redford Aldersgate United Methodist Church, just west of the city line, who had previously served at a church in affluent Birmingham, Michigan. “That challenged my stereotypes of what rich people are,” he said. “A lot of the problems that are out there in the city are hidden. There’s an isolation in the affluent suburbs. … These people are asking questions that they’d never asked before. People of suburban Detroit, people of conscience, are looking for a handle to hang onto. They don’t want to see the city fall apart. You’ve got people who are saying, ‘We’re convinced we can’t do it from afar.'”
The themes and stories he found in Wisconsin and Michigan echoed in places further down the road, such as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Springfield, Massachusetts. Also in Massachusetts he explored the issue and the reality of gay marriage through Bill Henning and Thomas MacDonald, a couple with whom he spent several days in Salem and Provincetown. All along his route he encountered the election and its implications, and the disputed significance of President Obama. “If you were President of the United States, would you be more vocal than he is?” Ethan asked Lenny Miller, a pioneering African American commercial airline pilot and NASCAR team owner, over lunch in Tysons Corner, Virginia. “Oh, I would,” replied Miller. “I’m Morehouse College. He’s Harvard.” Another person who commented on politics was a 16-year-old Haitian immigrant girl in Orlando, who said about Mitt Romney: “Why would you choose somebody who’s already rich, that don’t have a clue what it like for the poor? And again, you already rich. What’s the point of you wanting so bad to be president?”
Ethan explored immigrant communities in today’s America through conversations with struggling Haitians in Florida and affluent Pakistanis in North Carolina and Georgia. He heard compelling stories from survivors of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Waldo Canyon wildfire in Colorado Springs. In Miami, the Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat told him: “What it means to me to be an American has always been hyphenated and diverse, because I’ve always lived in these melting-pot cities. When I first came to New York, I went to Brooklyn and so, to me, that was America: people speaking Spanish, people speaking Russian, Korean. You have your Haitian groceries at the Korean store.” In Houston, Enron scandal whistleblower Sherron Watkins told him: “You know, it’s been eleven years of talking about Enron. I am shocked at college students’ naivete! They actually think that as soon as an ethical dilemma crosses their lap, they’re gonna quit the company or walk out the door or say something. And ninety-eight percent of ’em are gonna be that deer that goes, ‘Oh, what’s that? That bright light coming down the road?’ Ka-boom.”
Ethan Casey is allergic to offering policy prescriptions, but he did reach a few ambivalent conclusions. “One of the motivating premises of my project had been that America was not separate or different from the rest of the world,” he concludes at the end of Home Free. “I had proven that, at least to my own satisfaction. And I had seen for myself that while the United States, plural, might be in some sense a single country, they are also an archipelago of disparate communities. Whether the center would hold was an open question.”
Paul Rogat Loeb, author of Soul of a Citizen, says: “Ethan Casey listened hard and well in his books on Haiti and Pakistan. Now he’s listening to America.” And Bill Steigerwald, author of Dogging Steinbeck, considers Home Free better than the most famous of all American road trip books:
“Just as John Steinbeck did in 1960 for his classic Travels With Charley, in the fall of 2012 Ethan Casey set out by car to discover – and document – the pulse of America and its people. Steinbeck’s ambitious search for his country was a failure, as the great author himself admitted. But Home Free is travel journalism at its finest. Casey delivers a valuable snapshot of 2012 America and its most contentious political and social issues. Best of all, he introduces us to a rich cross-section of good, smart and thoughtful Americans who tell their stories and express their opinions fully on everything from immigration and gay marriage to the death of Detroit. Home Free is, in a real sense, the American road book Steinbeck set out to write but didn’t.”
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