Most teenagers live in a world apart from the actual world. But to the writer Jim Heynen, who grew up in a Dutch Calvinist enclave in northwestern Iowa, the rest of the world may well have been another planet.
“The main goal is these communities was to remain separate from the world; the bogeyman was worldliness. There was a preacher in my hometown who single-handedly threw the theater out of town because it was a hallmark of worldliness,” he said in an interview. “That has changed. My father grew up speaking Dutch in school, but right after World War II, Dutch was no longer spoken freely on the streets, because it sounded too like German, and that was the beginning of the assimilation and Anglicism of the Dutch. They are no longer defending themselves against the outside the world: They are actively attacking it. These communities represent the heart of the religious right, and today they are the tail that is wagging the dog of Iowa politics.”
This tension between here and out there, and us and them forms the uncomfortable backdrop for Heynen’s moving and sensitively written first novel, “The Fall of Alice K.,” which is set in northwestern Iowa in 1999. His heroine, Alice, lives in a simple farming community fraught with enormously complex challenges. She must navigate unusual religious tensions, pre-Y2K paranoia, and the arrival of immigrants in the area, which all impact her approach to the more typical teen issues of school, farm chores, love and uncertain futures. Most poignantly, Heynen describes the death of the family farm. This may be an old topic in regional literature, but it’s still very much a reality in rural communities.
“The worst year was 1998, when you could buy a hog for the price of a carton of cigarettes. But it continues to be a struggle to be in farming. Many people have given up. When I go to northwest Iowa today and go for a drive with my brother [who still lives there], he asks if I can tell which is a family farm and which is corporate-owned [but possibly still managed by the original family]. It’s a perverse question, because you can see the meticulous care the owner farmer give his fields. It’s very clear. But it’s very hard to hang on, as you can see in the novel. Alice’s community is suffering very badly. I’ve done a lot of arts in the schools work in these rural areas, and when I ask the kids where they want to be in 10 years, the typical answer is, ‘Anywhere but here.’ ”
Heynen himself was one of those kids once. It was assumed that he would come back from college and become a minister or teacher at Western Christian High School. Instead, he became a writer and a teacher, teaching writing and literature around the country and at St. Olaf, the University of Iowa, Hamline and the U of M. He lives in St. Paul, and has written more than 20 books, including short stories, poetry, young adult novels, a noted collection of portraits of centenarians, and a book of Michael Harker’s photographs of barns. He is married to Sarah T. Williams, former books editor at the Star Tribune (and a MinnPost contributor). Like Heynen, Alice K. is a lover of the written word, and her travails are tempered by her reading list and a witty friendship with another bookish young woman. But it is her relationship with the new kid in town, a Hmong teen who becomes her boyfriend, that turns her life upside down.
“I always tell my students to pay attention to what’s in your peripheral vision. And a long time ago, before I had so many Hmong friends, I heard about a Hmong family who moved into northwest Iowa. They only stayed awhile, and I don’t know the reasons they got out of there, but I could speculate, and that formed the beginning of this story in my head,” said Heynen, who consulted with Hmong people in his circle to shape the Hmong characters and household in his book. He also consulted with women — dozens of them.
Still, Heynen says the book came together more slowly and with more difficulty than his previous work. He completed the novel in various locations, including the Anderson Center in Red Wing and the Loft’s writing studios — which he describes as being cubicles lacking in distraction (and delights). “I’ve heard from several young women readers who love the book, which pleases me very much,” he says, although, “It’s all done with mirrors.”
Book Launch Party, Sept. 19, 7 p.m. Dayton Avenue Presbyterian Church, St. Paul.