Monday, April 14, 2008

'Postville' Author Probes Deep Into Rural Iowa With New Project

Well into an interview for his upcoming book on Oxford, Iowa, Stephen G. Bloom faced a defining choice for his portrayal of an 83-year-old woman.

Should he go for broke with a penetrating, perhaps interview-ending impertinent question?

In poker parlance, author-journalist Bloom opted to go “all in,” asking the widow if she really loved her late husband all those years in this small eastern Iowa town.

“You can’t ask that if you know someone,” Bloom said.

And, he added, “That’s a real un-Iowa question to ask.”

Instead of a door in the face, Bloom, a University of Iowa journalism professor and noted writer, was rewarded with a gem of honesty.

Come to think of it, the woman confided, her husband had an affair with a lady he met at, of all things, a euchre card game.

“I would have felt better if she were young and beautiful, but she wasn’t,” the widow told Bloom.

Bloom is the author of “Postville,” a year 2000 book examining the cultural calamity in the small, predominantly Lutheran town after Lubavitcher Jews settle there and take over the local slaughterhouse, resurrecting the local economy but shaking the flow of life there so many rural Iowans know.

A former writer for newspapers including the Los Angeles Times and Dallas Morning News, Bloom spoke to a packed forum at Des Moines Area Community College in Carroll last week. He also talked with The Daily Times Herald and a handful of DMACC supporters about his new works during a three-hour dinner at the Carrollton Centre.

One of the endeavors on which he focused is a book set for publication this fall — “The Oxford Project: Who We Are.” In 1984, photographer Peter Feldstein shot photos of most of Oxford, Iowa’s, 670 residents. Some 20 years later, encouraged by Bloom, he went back and compiled a then-and-now image collection of more than 100 of those residents. Over the last several years, Bloom has interviewed these Oxfordians about life and family and Iowa, basic questions about what they eat, how they work, and deeper ones about what they believe happens to man after death or what went wrong a in a relationship.

“No one has ever decked me,” Bloom said.

The result, Bloom thinks, may be something of an unprecedented chronicling of a rural Iowa community with the voices of regular folks leading the story.

Too often, features on small towns take a predictable journalistic path, Bloom said.

“You interview the mayor,” Bloom said. “You interview the important people.”
Bloom said he sees this book as something of a “fanfare for the common man,” a reference to Aaron Copeland’s unmistakably American music.

“It blew us away,” Bloom said. “It was just stunning.”

Bloom brings an outside observer’s eye to this project, as he did with “Postville.”

But having moved from San Francisco to Iowa in 1993 to take the U of I post, he’s added many more years of life on the inside of Iowa to his perspective for Oxford.
He appreciates the openness of Iowans and says it is vital to the book.

“I don’t think I could do the Oxford book in New York because I think people would be warier of me,” Bloom said.

Bloom said when he moved to Iowa from California, he had something of an immigrant experience.

“I didn’t come from Guatemala,” Bloom said. “I came from San Francisco.”

He learned about the culture of the Iowa potluck — the seven-layer salads.
“Iowans and casseroles, right?” he said.

And he quickly picked up on what is widely viewed as the most life-changing, long-running trend in the state: Iowa is getting older and young people have sought futures elsewhere.

“The nature of older people unfortunately is that they get older and die,” Bloom said.

One criticism Bloom has of his adopted state is that so many have an unwillingness to adapt to modernity.

“I think they’re still rhapsodizing the Iowa of 30 or 40 years ago,” Bloom said.

Bloom, who lives in Iowa City with his wife and son, is also working on “Tears of Mermaids,” a work that traces the history of pearls and reveals to readers what happens from the time they are fished from oceans to when a necklace is clasped around a woman’s neck.

He is also founder of the Iowa Journalists Oral History project, which records the histories of the Hawkeye State’s senior journalists of note, publishers, editors, reporters, photographers and columnists.

Photo: Author and journalist Stephen G. Bloom speaks at Des Moines Area Community College’s Carroll campus about his work in rural Iowa.

This story is cross-posted at Iowa where it first appeared.

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