From the Chicago Tribune

Author of ‘Methland,’ about drug war in rural America, wins prize

By Elizabeth Taylor

October 31, 2009

In Oelwein, Iowa, Nick Reding found the bleeding heart of the nation. Most may regard this part of the world as “flyover country,” but Reding saw it as an iconic place where a town four square blocks, with fewer than 7,000 residents, 13 churches, a refurbished Main Street and a new library could be a prime example of how the drug war had come to rural America.

Reding came upon this story about a decade ago, in the course of working on another one. He found himself in a bar with some night road workers, high on meth, and was compelled by what he heard. It took Reding several years to interest a publisher, but undeterred, he continued his effort. He eventually moved from New York to St. Louis, not far from the town where he grew up. Oelwein, with its crumbling economy and falling tax revenue, had became a premier distribution hub and a production facility for meth, a drug that basically could be made with fertilizer, cold pills and what Reding calls a “ninth grade knowledge of chemistry.”

What began as a search for the effect of a drug on one town led to an exploration of how the hollowed-out Midwest was fertile ground for methamphetamine and why it was so resistant to eradication. Over four years, Reding immersed himself in Oelwein and wrote about an ensemble of locals. He writes with care and sensitivity, with a keen eye for the subtle nuances in behavior as well as an ear for the cadence in regional Midwestern accents that distinguish the players in this drama. Reding portrayed a town full of perplexing, inspiring and very real characters: a doctor with demons, a struggling mayor, an addict who blows up his mother’s house and even the sister of an oafish comedian who once reigned over a vast drug manufacturing and distribution system.

Much like the contradictory heartland, this book explores the idea that heartbreak and redemption can coexist in small-town America. “There is a real sense of hope,” Reding explains. “Nowhere is the sense of self-reliance and resilience stronger than the heartland, but that is a lot of onus to put on a town. A town can’t always save itself when what they’re part of is flawed. Just as a meth addict can’t save himself in a place where there is no treatment, there are no jobs.”

Winner of this year’s Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Non-Fiction, Nick Reding’s wonderful book, “Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town,” evokes elements of “Winesburg, Ohio” in its depiction of small-town life, but with a very modern twist. “Oelwein is fundamentally a small town grappling with an era of globalization,” Reding says. “Meth is a symptom and a lens of that.”

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