by David Rhodes

Paperback, 2009

Call number




Milkweed Editions (2009), 448 pages


Driftless is an unforgettable story of contemporary life in rural America. Words, Wisconsin, home to a few hundred people yet absent from state maps, comes richly to life by way of an extraordinary cast of characters. Among them, a middle-aged couple guards the family farm from the medacious schemes of their milk cooperative; a lifelong invalid finds herself crippled by her resentment of and her affectin for her sister; a wmoan of conflicting impulses and pastor of the local Friends Church stumbles upon an enlightenment she never expected; a cantankerous retiree discovers a cougar living in his haymow, haunting him like a childhood memory; and a former drifter forever alters the ties that bind a community together. At once intimate and funny, wise and generous, Driftless makes the triumphant return of a significant American writer.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member brenzi
"Gail sang her song again and was again lifted up by the accompaniment, borne away to a place where plastic factories, unpaid bills, human cruelty, flat tires, and leaking hot water heaters did not exist." (Page 290)

Welcome to Word, Wisconsin. You won't soon forget it. David Rhodes has written a
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novel that made me cry not once but three separate times automatically rating it five stars in my book. Narrated in alternating chapters by several of the residents of this tiny, nearly forgotten town, the author makes clear that life here is hard and what holds it together is the tenacity and loving spirit of these complicated characters. July Montgomery, a hardscrabble farmer, is the center of this world and his kindness and joy covers everyone with an invisible sense of hope.

Cora and Grahm operate a small dairy farm and, like all small farmers, depend on the honesty of the co-op to sustain their income. Jacob Helm, grieving widower, runs a repair shop that everyone relies on for one thing or another. Olivia, wheelchair bound and her sister Violet Brasso don't often see eye to eye but their love for each other is strong. Gail Shotwell works the night shift at the local plastics factory but aspires to be a songwriter. Rusty Smith, retired farmer and all around hard working grouch, discovers untold happiness when he gives in and allows the Amish to make some home improvements for him and his wife, Maxine. He also discovers he harbored a secret that had taken many years to reveal itself. And Winifred Smith is the pastor of Words Friends of Jesus Church, where most of the characters end up.

All the characters represent the hardest working people you will ever know and Rhodes brilliantly depicts them through the use of beautiful prose that had me busily marking passages like:

"Late had recently become a habitual companion in a more general condition of dread."

And Old Age was carefully preserved in the furniture, the artfully organized clutter on the walls and shelves, and the odor of some prehistoric mold culture ingeniously nurtured to withstand modern antiseptic cleaning methods and modernity itself."

And each of these finely drawn characters experiences an epiphany of one kind or another that changes their life completely. All except July, which makes his importance in the novel even more clarifying.

An absolutely wonderful book with enduring characters and I'm scratching my head wondering how I let it sit on my shelves for over ten years. Thanks so much to Mark for getting me to read it. If you decide to give it a try it would be easy to skip the chapter containing the dog fights which was the only negative passage to me.
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LibraryThing member porch_reader
I saw David Rhodes read from his new book, Jewelweed, at the Iowa City Book Festival, and I loved the excerpt so much that I bought Jewelweed and Driftless, both of which are set in Words, Wisconsin. Rhodes weaves together the stories of many of the residents of Words, and each of their stories is
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compelling. Alone, they are well-crafted snapshots of life in rural Wisconsin - a bass player at a bar, a minister tending her flock, a farmer milking his cows. But together, they are the rhythms of life, the struggles and triumphs, the quarrels and the communions, the quiet moments and the climaxes. Rhodes said that the book took years to write, and some of the characters took on a life of their own. I'm glad that he had the patience to follow them where they took him.

Rhodes is also patient enough to paint a picture of rural Wisconsin. His words truly create Words. There are passages like this around every corner:

"Sometimes in the theater of winter, a day will appear with such spectacular mildness that it seems the season can almost be forgiven for all its inappropriate hostility, inconveniences, and even physical assaults. With a balmy sky overhead, melting snow underfoot, and the sounds of creeks running, the bargain made with contrasts doesn't look so bad: to feel warm, one must remember cold; to experience joy, one must have known sorrow." (p. 264).

I highly recommend this one and can't wait to visit Words again.
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LibraryThing member KAzevedo
I loved this book but I'm not sure I can say why. It's small chapters of snippets of the lives of people in a rural community in Wisconsin. They seem to become connected through a former drifter and gentle soul named July who has been farming in the community for twenty some years. The lives of all
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the characters seem catalyzed by July to become more...linked together to become greater than standing so alone. Beautiful writing full of ideas. Keep to reread someday. Many layers missed and to be discovered
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LibraryThing member drhapgood
Wow. No, really.

I was surprised how easily the characters in this book earned my love and respect. I usually need time to bond with characters, choosing long-running series to give me time to let each person become part of me. Driftless, a collection of short vignettes concerning people living in
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or near Words, Wisconsin, is so powerfully written that I needed almost no time at all before wanting to cheer these people on toward the growth and change they so desperately need.

Each character's crisis and journey is complex but approachable. The literary equivalent of Jason Robert Brown songs, the nature of each person's problem isn't simplified to fit some generic template of a person to make it easier to identify with. I did see myself in these characters, but did so without ceasing to see the character either. I loved that.

I look forward to reading this again in ten years, to see how the older me looks at these lives.
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LibraryThing member biblioarchy
Reading this amazing book, written by a guy i do not yet know who lives a few miles away, has been like reading the observations of a little green man on my shoulder who has been observing the bizarre and charming world we inhabit in the Driftless for the last 10 years. Rhodes weaves a haunting and
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complex web of interconnection, suffering, revelation, and wonder. The characters reflect the real life everyday joes who live in this forgotten bioregion. I am halfway through and am entranced beyond expectations.
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LibraryThing member juniperSun
Each short chapter presents a segment from the life of one of the residents of Words, Wisconsin. At first it feels a bit disjointed, but Rhodes does tie them all together by the end.
This small farming community has faces familiar to those who have lived in small towns: retired farmers, spinster
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sisters, local minister, rebellious teen...but with a twist. The local church is Evangelical Quaker, and the minister, a young woman, is a seeker for truth rather than a righteous rule-layer. Being in the Driftless area, there are Amish to accept, dairy conglomerates to fight, and a lot of helping each other out.
Rhodes is good at description, when he wants to, and enjoys unusual words (e.g. "fugacious" on p.55, "empyrean" on p.313). Roadhoppers used for grasshoppers or cicadas is not a word I've heard anyone around here use. Rambarkle seems to be his own made up word for the seeds and plant parts that gather on your socks when hiking cross country.
I'll agree with another reviewer than some of his facts don't ring true: mulberry bushes hiding a hole in a fence (mulberry grows as a tree)(p.335), early settlers mining for gold (p.4).
I wonder to what exent Rhodes' personal experience led to the remark "She would never be like heaven to someone else--only a charitable activity for earning the right to get there." (p.194)
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LibraryThing member vanjr
Nice picture of modern small town Midwest. I felt like I was peaking in on a segment of life in Words
LibraryThing member madamimadam
This book, a true sweeping epic of small-town life in the Midwest, is a gem. Through gentle, almost meandering philosophical asides about life in one of the most "natural" areas in the country left me often quoting them for hours, playing with the words again and again.

Comparisons have been made
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between David Rhodes and John Steinbeck, and I will say these comparisons are not unfounded. Like Steinbeck, Rhodes has a way of establishing setting and mood in a few concise paragraphs that make you feel as if you've been living in the Midwest all your life. He also evaluates his characters with a sparse, spartan language that leaves no room for flowery asides but still hits with the emotional intensity of the best Romantic writers.

Naturally there were some characters I cared for more than others as the book progressed, and to catch all of the symbolism will require another reading, but the way all of the paths intertwine in the final chapters of the book is simply masterful.

This is my first David Rhodes novel, but if this is any indication of his abilities as a writer I will definitely begin searching for others.
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LibraryThing member michaelbartley
What a wonderful find, I am so glad I discovered this writer, there is a lot of very good writing in this novel. A number of issues are discussed in a very thoughful way. The people are decent, hard working and honest. The only thing I disliked is the policital aspect, the evil government and big
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business to me that is lazy writing but that a thankful a very small part of the book. a big thumbs up
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LibraryThing member mojomomma
Rhodes illustrates the many seemingly mundane ways our lives intersect by focusing on about a dozen people who live in and around Words, Wisconsin. I especially love his female characters. They are so strong, yet so vulnerable. Having grown up in a small town I really felt like I knew these
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characters. Great AIR selection!
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LibraryThing member libraryladebp
I listened to this book. It was very thought provoking.
LibraryThing member JFowler
Fantastic story telling. Rhodes does a great job at developing all the characters and putting them together. I look forward to reading more of his work.
LibraryThing member maryreinert
There are too many words in this book; too many weird characters; too many unbelievable situations; too many confrontations; too many characters; not enough plot. I admit I was pulled into the first few chapters, but soon found myself skipping paragraphs of writing that seemed as if the author was
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speaking his philosophy of life through the words of some character. The character of Olivia was totally unbelievable: a woman in a wheelchair who rarely leaves the house goes and loses the bank account at a casino, finds a kind of "soul mate" in a young parolee, attends a dog fight and adopts a fight dog, drinks some unknown potion and is "cured". However, I will admit that I felt that the relationship between Olivia and her sister Violet was at times right on target. I admit there were a few other places in the book that I felt were well done; just not enough of them.

One thing I really didn't understand was the constant confrontational tone between characters: husbands and wives, neighbors, relatives, minister and others. I couldn't understand the underlying tone of mistrust in everyone; I experienced the opposite growing up in rural Missouri. People might not be effusive communicators, but they did show a sense of respect and put on a pleasant fact to one another.

In short, I was very disappointed in this novel. I had read a review and thought it sounded very interesting. I think I was the one that recommended it to my book club (we did select it for a future read)thinking that it would provide lots of discussion. Guess, we'll see.

If you do appreciate well written books set in rural "backwater" locations, check out Winter's Bone: A Novelby Daniel Woodrell.
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LibraryThing member quondame
That Midwestern area that didn't collect geological drift seems clogged with human drift, a diminuative town full of almost adults who can't seem to keep their lives tracked without July Montgomery. Gloriously written, with human characters, but the plotting is fantasy and I'm not the audience for
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the transcendent stuff.
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LibraryThing member pdebolt
This is a very engaging book about people living in a small town in Wisconsin. The characters are memorable for the generosity of spirit evidenced in so many of their day-to-day interactions. Their lives are not filled with drama and action, but their thoughts and actions reflect an understanding
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of the importance of their place in the world.
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LibraryThing member bookwalter
A wonderful book about ordinary people doing ordinary things that somehow captures the spirit of the rural Midwest. Not to be missed!
LibraryThing member m.belljackson
The problems is
that by the time July Montgomery drives his tractor to the silo,
he is too real to let go of.

Review would have been 5 Full Stars if David Rhodes' editor had steered him in a direction away from the hideous dog fight.

Many readers may stick with "Here we go round The Mulberry BUSH..."
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- even though, yes, it is a Mulberry Tree,
a tree that resembles a bush when it grows.
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LibraryThing member rynk
Wisconsin has a Driftless region between LaCrosse and Madison, so named as untouched by glaciers. Its fictional residents in the town of Words are more drifting in place, satisfied with hard farm or factory work and harsh weather but each with private ideals just out of reach. Several modest plot
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strands follow friends and neighbors of July Montgomery, a mysterious stranger who quickly plants deep roots. The narratives merge with at a relaxed, satisfying pace and their interconnected lives explain their fierce connection with this end-of-the-road spot, which forces so many compromises from what seems like an uncompromising group. "Driftless" shares its locale with the recent, well received "Jewelweed," and reading it on a relaxed Wisconsin visit has me ready for the sequel's return trip.
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LibraryThing member electrascaife
Words is a tiny town in the middle of the Driftless area of southwest Wisconsin, a place where the glaciers didn't move through and flatten the land. The inhabitants of Words represent varying degrees of drift themselves; some seem to be wandering through live without an anchor, while others are
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very firmly tied to the land and the local way of life. I loved this novel, both for the beautifully drawn characters and how their stories all come together in different ways, and for the lovely rendition of this area of Wisconsin. Having grown up on a farm and also having lived in the Driftless for nearly a decade, I can attest that Rhodes' depiction of farm life, life in SW Wisconsin, and the people who inhabit the two is 100% accurate and lovingly told. I have only a couple of very minor quibbles: there's one character whom I can't stand and so the sections of the book focused on her were not to my taste, and there were bits here and there that seems to drag and could have used some editing. Otherwise, though, a fantastic novel.
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LibraryThing member zmagic69
Wow, when I started reading this the first chapter showed serious promise, but then it started seriously drift all over the place. I nearly stopped reading it. But kept going. I am glad I did the story starts to come together about half way through.
A small town in southwestern Wisconsin, and it
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quirky citizens, and how they are all bound together.
This isn’t an exciting book but it is a well written book and has a interesting number of things to learn from it if you are patient.
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LibraryThing member viviennestrauss
Kind of like Peyton Place but in southwestern Wisconsin with farmers instead of mill workers. Good writing and a good story overall but way too long and I found all the religion really annoying. The dates didn't really add up - internet service but a tractor that is 30 years old but made during
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LibraryThing member churmice
David Rhodes first novel in 30 years is a treasure - sure to become a modern classic! Rhodes writes with the soul and grace of a poet and this story with wrap it's arms around you and never let you go!

Be sure to treat yourself to Rhodes earlier work, especially Rock Island Line!

A huge thank you
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to Milkweed Editions for bringing Rhodes back to the reading public!!
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LibraryThing member TimBazzett
DRIFTLESS (2008) is a book I absolutely loved and didn't want it to end. And at four hundred-plus small-ish print pages, it almost didn't. With its unique, and mostly likable, cast of small town characters, it has been compared to Sherwood Anderson's WINESBURG, OHIO and Edgar Lee Masters' SPOON
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RIVER ANTHOLOGY, both very apt comparisons, albeit with some modern twists. But David Rhodes does for the Driftless region of southwestern Wisconsin what Willa Cather did for frontier Nebraska, or, closer to home, what Aldo Leopold did for the Dells in his SAND COUNTY ALMANAC, with a touch of Mayberry in the mix. There is nothing I enjoy more than a character-driven novel, and the denizens of Words, Wisconsin are a pure pleasure to meet and get to know, from the mysterious farmer, July Montgomery, to Pastor Winifred Smith of the Words Friends of Jesus Church, to the repair shop proprietor, Jacob Helm, to dairy farmers Grahm and Cora Shotwell (up against big business and government). And there is paroled petty criminal Wade Armbuster, who falls for the crippled spinster, Olivia, picking her up off the ground in a casino parking lot and taking her on a wild and hilarious night ride through the countryside, first chasing her purse snatchers, then fleeing the police. (And later he takes her to a dog fight, followed by another wild ride.) And there is Rusty Smith, a retiree who learns to respect and trust his Amish neighbors who come to work on his house repairs. And Moe Ridge, a survivalist who is training a secret militia in a forest encampment. And on and on, until all these separate story threads are woven together, sometimes in the most surprising ways.

There are perhaps a dozen or more fascinating folks that populate this story of a tiny rural community, and David Rhodes makes sure you come to know them all intimately. There is comedy here and there is also tragedy. This is storytelling at its very best. My very highest recommendation.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER
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