This is America’s heartland, the ‘flyover country’ usually seen by British visitors only from an aeroplane window as they head west for the coast. It’s a land of other people’s clichés — home of the moral majority, the background for Norman Rockwell paintings, a series of cowpoke towns which lie flat as a map from the Adirondacks to the Rockies. Which makes it such a surprise when visitors to the Midwest — especially this northern part — discover how beautiful it is. In this one county of mid-Michigan there is rolling orchard land, the start of the pine and hardwood forests that stretch north through most of Canada and, on the shores of Lake Michigan, a 150-mile stretch of white, soft sand. And everywhere there is water, which makes it resemble Scandinavia more than the Continent, and explains why surnames like Gustafson and Lonergan vie with Smith for space in the phone book. A cousin of my mother’s, an early flier, once flew solo across Lake Michigan in the 1920s, expecting a body of water on the diminutive scale of lakes in his native Massachusetts. When halfway across he couldn’t see land either behind or ahead of him, he panicked and thought he had somehow been transported in a hallucinatory frenzy to the Pacific. He must have been the only man in history to cry with joy at the sight of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
There aren’t many other natural dangers here. The only poisonous snake, the anodyne Massasauger rattlesnake, possesses a bite which, if left entirely unattended, might make a small child of feeble disposition briefly ill. More impressive are the bears, which even 20 years ago were almost never seen (though once a ladies’ foursome at the Oceana Golf Club was interrupted on the 13th green by a black bear keen to make it a fiveball). Now, as the development of the countryside pushes bears towards civilisation, sightings have become almost commonplace. Last month a partygoer walking home at three in the morning in Pentwater village saw what she took to be Sebastian, a local Newfoundland puppy already weighing in at 150lbs, exploring some rubbish bins. As she began to tell him to go home, ‘Sebastian’ stood up, three times larger than any dog she’d ever seen before.
There is virtually no crime in Pentwater, which may surprise those who assume that all of the United States belongs in an episode of NYPD Blue. But rural America is astonishingly safe. Violent crimes are almost non-existent; burglaries are confined to winter break-ins of summer cottages, and there are still plenty of people who don’t lock their doors at night. Yes, all the natives own guns, but it’s more on the Swiss model of a rifle or shotgun in every home than the downstate Detroit paradigm of Saturday Night Specials — cheap handguns designed to kill only one animal: people. Its absence of trouble makes Pentwater a wonderful place to bring small children for a holiday, since it allows them the kind of unsupervised play which in England seems to exist only in books by Laurie Lee.
Yet the charm of this small town — its streets lined by towering century-old maples, the Victorian houses built from the white pine timber that first drew settlers here — is threatening to become its downfall. As it attracts growing numbers of retired couples (mainly from Chicago) and investors in real estate who buy the houses just to rent them out to summer visitors, the family life at the heart of this town’s romantic appeal is facing extinction. Thirty years ago almost all the kids at Pentwater High walked to school — exceptions were confined to one school bus which collected a few students living on farms. Now there are seven school buses, because so few families can afford to buy a house in town. On the site of the baseball field where I played as a boy, the children of my old boss, the town’s former drugstore owner, are building more than 130 houses, though since the cheapest unit will start at $250,000, these are not exactly ‘starter’ homes designed to halt the exodus of young families. When I run into him in the local real estate office, the realtor jokes, ‘You remember Mr Trump’, and my old boss turns pink.
This is not the only population shift — the Mexican migrants who used to come each summer, pick cherries and beans and corn and apples, then leave to pick elsewhere, now tend to stay all year round, lured by welfare benefits. At least 15 per cent of the county is now Hispanic, and this new presence is not without tension; it’s interesting to watch how white residents, once complacent about the shoddy living conditions of migrant workers, grow vocal about what they see as the preferential treatment accorded them by the government. The mechanisation of agriculture means the jobs that Mexican-Americans fill here are more likely to be in the vast processing plants than in the fields themselves, though Christmas trees still get trimmed by hand — a back-breaking task which as a kid I managed to leave to my two older brothers when our father bought 40 acres of scrubland with 8,000 trees. It was an improbable acquisition for a professor of English literature, and even more so for a man of German-Jewish descent, though he resisted the temptation to call his holding Star of David Christmas Trees.
This is Bush country — save for the odd Kerry bumper sticker on the car of newly arrived liberals in Pentwater — traditionally Republican, instinctively patriotic, with a strong military tradition which has already seen three local soldiers killed in Iraq. The editor of the weekly newspaper, whose husband runs the county’s one winery, explains that in her own office an informal ban exists on discussions about the war, since otherwise the atmosphere would become overheated very quickly. The problem, she explains, is that even for the most diehard Bush supporters ‘this is a hard war to defend’ — and ever since Vietnam the young in particular are willing to question what formerly would go unchallenged. Later that day I stand on the deck of an old friend’s house, drinking bourbon and watching sailboats as the sun goes down on Pentwater Lake. ‘In hindsight,’ my friend remarks, ‘the war was a big mistake. But this is a small town. In Pentwater, places like Iraq seem a million miles away. Maybe that’s part of the problem.’
Andrew Rosenheim’s novel Stillriver is published by Hutchinson.