Monday, April 25, 2011

Expressing his love of Iowa

Originally printed July 25, 2010.

Poet, essayist, scholar and anthologist Zachary Jack has been studying Iowa's brain drain for quite a while.

In his 2009 anthology, "Iowa: The Definitive Collection," Jack included many passages from the past two centuries alluding to how Iowa's No. 1 export seems to be its brightest young people. Back in 1938, for example, the New Deal writers who wrote "The WPA Guide to Iowa" observed, "An Iowan is as likely to be found in any other of the forty-eight states as in his native one, if the term be taken simply to mean a person who was born in Iowa."

But Jack -- a 36-year-old, seventh-generation Iowan -- is equally worried about the consequences of Iowa's intra-state brain drain as he is about the pull of the rest of the nation or world on the next generation. After all, if more people don't decide to stay in the state's rural areas, there won't be a next generation there.

"What no one seems to be talking about is the exodus of Iowa 20-and 30-somethings from the countryside to places like Dubuque and Davenport and Des Moines, leaving behind no dating pool in rural places for Iowa grads to return to," Jack said. "If there's no way for Iowa's young lovers to find one another where they love to live, outside the city, then the image of farmers' sons and daughters courting on a front porch really is nothing more than a fiction, and Iowa will have ceased to be what it always was: a home for romance."

That's why Jack -- as a romantic at heart -- began writing a love story about a 30-something-year-old magazine columnist who gets swept off his feet by a secret admirer-philosopher who shares his love of all things Iowan.

The fictional tale, "What Cheer: A Love Story" -- named after the real-life Iowan town -- was published earlier this month from Steve Semken's North Liberty-based imprint, Tall Corn Books.

But Jack wanted to move beyond fiction and into the world of facts and numbers. As such, the rural Mechanicsville native decided to take a 10-day walking and driving tour across the state -- passing through as many as 20 cities, most with populations less than 5,000. At 4 p.m. today, the tour will take him to Prairie Lights Bookstore. At all these stops, he'll be reading from his fictional story as well as ruminating on the state of rural romance and courtship.

"My grandparents courted across just two miles in rural Cedar County, my parents just the few miles from rural Mechanicsville to Lisbon," Jack said. "The trouble is, I inherited their love of Iowa, while at the same time inheriting a state so changed that meeting an educated, 30-something a few miles from home is nearly a statistical impossibility."

Jack describes his tour as a "Bridebrai," recognizing a shared spirit between his project and the love of Iowa expressed by everyone participating in the Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. He just wants to ensure that there are new generations of native Iowans living and thriving in all those small towns along the RAGBRAI routes.

"So far, most of the people coming to events seem to be much more interested in the novel -- as a reverse brain drain story -- than they are in hearing about the demographics behind the novel," Jack said. "That's understandable. The novel is a romantic comedy, so it has a happy ending. ... It's nice to have a reason to come together with people and imagine a happy ending for the demographic trends that the state is wrestling with as well."

To follow Jack's tour online, visit To ask him about what he's learned in week on the road, come to Prairie Lights tonight.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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