Barnstorming Ohio to Understand AmericaBy Pat Williamsen

Do we need another book examining Ohio’s role as a microcosm of the nation? David Giffels believes Ohioans don’t need any more books written by outsiders who think they can explain us to ourselves. “We get enough of that every election cycle.”

Ohio is often described as a bellwether state. As Middle America. A good place to be from. Fly-over country. Its residents have long provided a reliable test market for new fast food concoctions, fashion innovations, presidential candidates. A temperate zone, neither too hot nor too cold, our four seasons bookended by football and baseball. Home to hundreds of champions and eight presidents, and 11.6 million ordinary people who are trying to figure out not only who to support in the 2020 elections, but how to vote, period. “It’s a battleground within a battleground.”

“Ohio isn’t any more American than any other place, but it is completely so. . . .” A lifelong resident of Akron, Giffels calls his home state “sublimely average.” Seeking answers to why Ohio is completely so American, in Barnstorming Ohio to Understand America, Giffels visited the men and women who build our economy and sometimes go broke doing it. Along the way, he hoped to learn why the nation feels so divided in the 21st century.

As a barnstormer, Giffels returns to his roots as an investigative journalist. His previous books including The Hard Way on Purpose and Furnishing Eternity, are elegant memoirs that hint at the dichotomies of being an Ohioan, living and dying in Ohio, making a life here. Barnstorming Ohio demonstrates his deft skill for sharing complex patterns with subtle nuance, data blended with daily grind, to reveal patterns that can be applied to everyone, everywhere.

The personal is political. Looping west and south from his home in Akron, Giffels found the stories of people earnestly and honestly striving to make a living and to make sense of the divided nation of which we are a significant part. When considering the state of Ohio agriculture, Giffels observes that farmers have experienced a “deep test of will [during] a season in which nature and government, two forces entirely out of their control, dictated their fate, day after day after day, betraying the constant lookout for a ray of hope.” Midway through America’s latest crisis—a pandemic complicated by mismanagement – the passage speaks for all Ohioans, regardless if we till the soil, make the cars, or shuffle ever-growing piles of paper. We are beset by forces beyond our control – a wet spring, a pandemic, a dysfunctional body politic.

This era of broken dreams, punctuated by election cycles that defy the norms of civil society, is not without hope. For as many stories of civil society at odds with itself, Giffels offers stories of hope: A troubled young man embarking an enlightened path, vowing to be part of the solution. A rookie cop, whose goals include bench pressing heavier weights and saving lives. Main Street reinvented to become destination shopping districts for independent bookstores, coffee shops, microbreweries – convivial places for neighbor to gather and be neighborly. We have more in common with each other than we think, he asserts, and therein lies the secret to resolving national turmoil.

If what happens in Ohio ripples across the nation and reverberates through the foundations of the federal government—then Barnstorming Ohio is a welcome interpretation of living in a bellwether state. His elegant prose, in turns blunt and poetic, is a gift—a balm of reason for unreasonable times. Quoting some of the state’s finest writers, Giffels reveals our landscape—our place—still full of wonders and beauty. Even more beautiful are the people introduced whose pragmatism is tinted with faith. Giffels’s exploration is both revealing and calming: This, too, shall pass.