Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper (Viking, 2018). By Art Cullen.
The city of Storm Lake, population 10,611, is one of the few towns in Iowa with double-digit growth in each decennial census since 1880. It has a large hog slaughterhouse, meat packing plant and turkey processing plant attracting immigrant workers from Latin America and beyond. It has a school district in which 23 languages are spoken. It has a once-pristine natural lake mostly recovered from farming practices that sent Iowa top soil down drainage ditches and into larger waterways. It has two community newspapers, both of which serve their readers by covering regional news, features and sports. One of these, the Storm Lake Times, has the distinction of being co-owned by an award-winning journalist who earned a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for his editorial series about water pollution and big agriculture. That journalist, Art Cullen, mines these stories and more in his first book, Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper.
Cullen breaths life into these themes while placing his personal background, gritty newspaper career and area history into a larger context. As Cullen summarizes the book, “Our story dwells mainly in the here and now of Storm Lake—buffeted by the currents of corn markets and the wind and rain and political sleight of hand. We explore how we can maintain the world’s most productive agricultural complex without destroying ourselves and the people downstream” (p. x).
Cullen writes about his ancestors, Irish immigrants to the U.S., who settled in Iowa. He quietly establishes his credibility as an Iowa insider by writing at length about the family farm, and that of his wife’s family. He describes these places not as commodities but as refuges from the urbanized world. Woven into these stories is the meandering stream of Cullen’s decades as a journalist, ranging from small community papers his younger self wanted to rise above, to larger papers where he didn’t quite fit, back to his roots to start a family-run weekly. Throughout these tales is a steady thread of reminders about the Native Americans who lived in Iowa before the European settlers, who managed to sustain themselves on the land without ruining it.
At first glance, this might seem like an Iowa-centric book, and in a way, it is. Iowa politics is a specific story, but in this book some leading Iowa politicians are familiar names to national audiences. Further, though the farm crisis of the 1980s might have had its epicenter in Iowa, as Cullen argues, not many in agriculture nationwide didn’t feel its shocks. And while many places in America have diverse ethnic populations, few feel the edges like they do in a rural state like Iowa, still about 90 percent white. But Cullen disrupts this particular story to tell how he and a team of Storm Lake community leaders visited their Sister City in Mexico, to know the families and stories behind the people who’d turned up in their city, staying in the shadows out of reach of immigration authorities, seeking work.
“We tried to help our readers understand why the young men come to Storm Lake,” Cullen explains simply. The resulting editorial series promoted the idea that “immigrants are our future, just as the Germans, Swedes, and Irish who broke the prairie were” (p. 160).
In a move some journalists might call burying the lede, Cullen places the chapter about winning the Pulitzer near the end of the book. He writes about nervously passing the day of the announcement by getting his hair cut. He muses about the paper’s strong record of covering agriculture and environmental stories. He knew the Storm Lake Times was “punching above its weight” and that politically, doing so wasn’t always the best choice. “But we care about Storm Lake, we care about agriculture, we care about farmers, and we care about clean water,” he says of his paper. “These are the things that add up to a vision of sustainable farm and town relationships where one builds off the other” (p. 271).
Cullen’s non-chronological, thematic telling of these stories demands start-to-finish reading. No use guessing from chapter titles what the contents will cover. That’s for the best, because each chapter has a depth of both truth-telling and emotional content that readers sense just waiting to pop out of him, like milkweed seeds bursting from their pods in fall. Cullen’s prose has the clear quality of a reporter accustomed to explaining the money trail in stories about complex government maneuverings and the like. But he also shows he’s part of the conversation with environmental writers such as Aldo Leopold, whom he admires.
“If you leave the land to itself, the native grass always pops back,” Cullen reflects. “The seed is always there. The soil grows back. The pasqueflower blooms. You may touch it lightly.”
Julianne Couch is the author of The Small Town Midwest: Resilience and Hope in the Twenty-First Century. She lives in Bellevue, Iowa.