-By Nina C. Ayoub
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Joseph A. Amato has a passion for the local, and
he hopes it proves contagious. His gentle manifesto, Rethinking
Home: A Case for Writing Local History (University of California
Press) rolls in from the prairies, using a fine-tuned sense of
place to make a far-reaching argument.
The book reflects the scholar's own path to becoming
a professor of rural and regional studies at Southwest State University.
Three decades ago, Mr. Amato arrived in southwestern Minnesota
with a specialty in European culture and intellectual history
and the intent to stay just a few years. He says he never imagined
becoming rooted, nor penning the local past. But he stayed, and
eventually found himself writing the region in sagas of a double
murder, an agricultural hoax, rural decline, and immigration,
past and present. In the new book, southwestern Minnesota is the
backdrop for musings on ways to write histories of home that avoid
static, sentimentalized portraits. To write local history, he
says, is to "learn a place in detail while understanding
it as part of an unprecedented mutation, transformation, and metamorphosis."
The author's take on rural change begins with environmental
and social history but soon roams over more elusive landscapes.
Exploring the sensory, he reimagines his region in sound, describing
a changing aural tapestry of noises from nature, farming, and
small-town life since the 19th century. Later, his regional histories
of anger and madness map the pastoral noir in a state known for
niceness. A self-described collector of dark tales, he urges local
historians to plumb the clandestine for the "invisible city,
threatening and submerged, in every town."
Ayoub, Nina C., "Nota
Bene," The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 10,