The State of Union

"I grew up a few miles from the X county this book deals with," anthropologist Jane Adams writes in her account of rural Union County, Illinois. "My family's farm, although dating only to the early 1940's, is now essentially abandoned, the community emptied." Her book describes this loss, serving both as indirect autobiography and scholarly investigation into the rise and fall of a small agrarian society.

I was at first uneasy with Adams's reliance on historical anthropology as a means of studying 20th-century American farm people. She uses aerial photographs from the 1930's and excavations by her graduate students to document the footpaths between farmsteads and the social fabric they represented. She dissects the Queen Contest of the Cobden village Peach Festival as though it were a South Sea tribal ritual. Yet the world that Adams knew as a child has seen its families dispersed, its values consigned to oral tradition, and its physical structure reduced to weathered and rusting relics. With sadness, I finished the book convinced that her techniques have become appropriate vehicles for grasping the identity and meaning of American rural communities.

Adams acknowledges her debt to a "feminist pedagogy group" at Southern Illinois University where she teaches, in this case turning feminist analysis to good use "to reclaim women's roles in Union County agriculture."...

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