When author Philip Caputo visited a rural schoolhouse in Kaktovik, Alaska, he noted that children in the remote Arctic Circle recited the same Pledge of Allegiance as students all over the United States. What other forces, he pondered, unite and divide Americans?
Caputo subsequently embarked on a road trip across the U.S. from Key West, Fla., to Deadhorse, Alaska, to ask ordinary citizens how they would answer the question.
His three-and-a-half-month excursion in a small Airstream trailer and truck – dubbed “Ethel” and “Fred,” respectively – covered 16,000 miles and resulted in his latest book, “The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Arctic Ocean” (Henry Holt, 2013).
Caputo is an award-winning journalist and author of more than a dozen books and numerous magazine articles and opinion pieces in national newspapers. As a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, he and his team won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of election fraud in Chicago. He is perhaps best known for his memoir, “A Rumor of War” (Henry Holt, 1977), which chronicles his experiences as a soldier during the Vietnam War.
In “The Longest Road,” Caputo searches for answers to what holds Americans together. Caputo is no Studs Terkel, the author who spent his career interviewing ordinary citizens and writing books about their experiences during the Depression and World War II. But, to his credit, Caputo has crafted both a travelogue and an account of his conversations with the many people he encounters on his journey.
The result is interesting – most of the time.
Caputo’s descriptions of the places he and his wife, Leslie, visit are fun and even occasionally poetic. His wry sense of humor brightens the book’s plethora of anecdotes. “The Longest Road” even boasts a table of humorous road signs, including the billboard outside Tok, Alaska, that reads: “Ignore This Sign.”
“The Longest Road” contains a fair amount of history, highlighting the places and customs Caputo discovers, as well as descriptions of small, simple things he has learned over his lifetime, such as the process of loading and firing a flintlock rifle.
The best parts of the book, however, document Caputo’s conversations with the people he meets on his cross-country trip. Susan Wiren, owner and proprietor of three businesses in tiny Chicken, Alaska, discusses the pride she takes in her work (she bakes pies for her restaurant) and emphasizes the dignity of all types of jobs. Carol Springer is a farmer who notes that “it’s not a great evolutionary thing to be so distant from where your food comes from.” And Ansel Woodenknife, a Lakota Indian, opened a restaurant in the Badlands of South Dakota that became famous for its fry bread and made an appearance on the Food Channel.
Ultimately, though, the answers to the question at the heart of “The Longest Road” – What unites and divides Americans? – fail to inspire. Many of the respondents’ answers are underwhelming or obvious: “hope,” “neighbors jumping in and helping” or “the lack of manners and civility.” Even Caputo’s conclusion didn’t strike me as particularly startling – his answer is “conflict.”
Rather than the question Caputo sets out to investigate, readers will likely prefer the stories about people’s lives and dreams, and how they ended up living in the small towns of America.
Most book clubs would find “The Longest Road” an enjoyable, discussion-provoking selection, particularly those that focus on nonfiction.
Leslie Ashmore is a longtime Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.