Iowa town split over portrayal in 'Methland'

  • Article by: STEPHANIE WILBUR ASH , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 17, 2009 - 11:39 PM

Fast-selling book by Nick Reding about meth and other small-town woes has left many Oelwein residents angry, hurt and exasperated.

"Methland" by Nick Reding

If you sat down for breakfast at Two Brothers Restaurant in Oelwein, Iowa, last Saturday and asked a smart-looking group of retired women if they were all from there, you'd get Shirley Keniston's wry response:

"We're all from Methland. Don't we look it?"

They don't. And yet they are from Methland, which is how Oelwein, Iowa, is now known nationally, thanks to journalist Nick Reding's recently published book, "Methland."

The book was the talk of the town last weekend, and the talk wasn't good. Asked about "that book," residents rolled their eyes in exasperation, sometimes outrage.

Oelwein is 230 miles south of Minneapolis, in northeastern Iowa.

Subtitled "The Death and Life of an American Small Town," the nonfiction book details the methamphetamine scourge of the town (pop. 6,000) from 2005 to 2007, as well as signs of a more recent turnaround in its fortunes. Reding uses the former railroad hub of the Chicago Great Western line as a case study of various ills in the rural Midwest, including big agribusiness, immigrant labor, a poor economy and the influx of Mexican drug trafficking.

Reding's other book, "The Last Cowboys at the End of the World: The Story of the Gauchos of Patagonia," sold 3,000 copies in four years and is out of print. Out for less than two months from publisher Bloomsbury, "Methland" is already in its fifth hardcover printing and was featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review July 5.

"It's selling really well," said Anton Mueller, the book's editor, from New York.

"I'm kind of unprepared for this," Reding told the Star Tribune by phone from St. Louis. Born and raised there, he moved back after years as a freelance journalist in New York, writing for Outside, Harper's, Details and other publications. He said he'd been doing several interviews per day, including with National Public Radio for "All Things Considered."

Oelwein isn't prepared, either.

"All Midwest towns had this problem. We're not the only one," said Deb Kunkle, city editor of the Oelwein Daily Register and a well-known former bartender. In the book, Reding says he chose Oelwein after becoming friendly with a town doctor, Clay Hallberg -- who became one of his featured "characters."

"The mayor said it's worth the read," Kunkle said, referring to another character, Mayor Larry Murphy. "Others have said, 'I've never heard such filth in my life!' We've had some people threaten to withdraw their support of the library if the author comes for a signing."

Reding's planned book event in town on Monday became front-page news in the Register, which ran one headline saying, "Author cancels Oelwein visit."

Last Saturday the Register ran a follow-up: " 'Methland' author rethinks Oelwein visit, will be coming July 20." Library program coordinator Susie Ricchio said, "After he had the opportunity to think about it and get feedback from the library and the citizens, he really felt like he owed it to us."

"I'll be up there at the appointed time," Reding said diplomatically. "This is a chance for people to confront me about it if they choose to do so."

Errors of fact

Town residents will probably take up Reding on his offer Monday. Topping the list of grievances are factual errors in the book: that Iowa City is the largest city in Iowa, for instance (it's Des Moines), and that the University of Northern Iowa is in Cedar Rapids (it's in Cedar Falls). Former high school principal Tim Gilson sent an e-mail around town denying most of the 100 or so words printed about him in the book.

Mueller, who edited the book, said his publisher's fact-checking process is "different than newspapers, it's different than magazines. We largely rely on the author." He also said, "We can correct [errors] in paperback," but that Bloomsbury would not correct errors in subsequent hardcover printings unless there was a legal issue, such as libel.

Although he regrets any errors, Reding said, "I stand behind everything in the book. It took me four years, and I was maniacal."

After 30 years of economic downturn, culminating with the loss of union jobs from Iowa Ham (now owned by Tyson) and the exodus of a factory owned by Bloomington-based Donaldson Co., some Oelwein residents feel further victimized by seeing their town's dark side become national news.

Reding himself is frustrated by some of the coverage. "It's all about freaking Roland Jarvis!" he said, referring to another character (not his real name): an Oelwein meth addict whose meth lab engulfed his mother's home in flames, he lost the home, much of his skin, parts of his hands and most of his nose.

Few news outlets have mentioned the hundreds of new, good-paying jobs in Oelwein, the new library and sewer systems, the new swimming facility, the geothermal heating and cooling systems of the school buildings, the beautification of the town's main street, or even the fact that meth lab busts are down dramatically.

"We feel like we were just starting to come back from great losses," said Kunkle.

No bookstore in town

"This book is about 2005, 2006, 2007," Reding said, "but it comes out in 2009. That's the way it works."

Still, this bothers longtime resident and investment manager Gerald Buhr. "Ask yourself this: Why would people still live here?" he said of "Methland's" portrait of Oelwein, although he's only read a short excerpt published online. Shane Paige, a resident who was installing new computer equipment in Buhr's office last Saturday, who also has not read the book, said, "There are two sides to any town. The same is true for Oelwein."

The book does show that, but most Oelwein residents have been unable to get their hands on it. The town has no bookstore, and the book is back-ordered on Amazon. The combined waiting lists at the library and Schuchmann's Pharmacy numbered 60 eager readers earlier this week, including proprietor Kurt Schuchmann, who looked at the last copy he had and thought, "It's either sell it or read it."

"If [people in town] would just read the book, they'd come away with a completely different feeling," said library program coordinator Ricchio. "You end up kind of liking the author. He does develop a relationship with his reader, which a lot of people fail to do in their books."

Not enough for Kim Annis, an Oelwein resident connected to three people convicted of drug crimes who are mentioned in the book. "I read some of it and then put it down, and then I got to where I could read some more of it, and then I got mad."

Apparently it hurts to have a past drug problem up for public scrutiny, even at the community level.

"I was defensive," said Judy Liebe, of how she felt when she heard about the book. She was at that round table at Two Brothers restaurant with her friends. Liebe probably won't read the book. "Our city fathers here have done so much."

"I don't want Oelwein to be labeled that way. That label sticks," said Mary Cross, a retired English teacher who does plan to read the book.

"But a lot of what he said was valid," said Marilyn Gallo, another retired English teacher. The only one at the table who had read "Methland," Gallo wanted to be clear on this point: "He was sympathetic to Oelwein."

Twin Cities writer Stephanie Wilbur Ash, a freelance writer in the Twin Cities, was raised in Oelwein and graduated from high school there in 1992.

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