This was a really hard book for me to start. I have lived in Iowa throughout the methamphetamine epidemic. We are third in amphetamine arrests in the nation–by total number, not per capita. I have taken care of countless addicts. I have had repair people in my house obviously tweaking while trouble-shooting the problem they were called to fix–often not successfully. I get it. But I am very thankful that I picked this book up and read it rather than assuming that I knew it’s contents before I started. In many ways, I had not given the roots of the problem much thought, so I missed some of the complexity within. But start it I did, and I got rapidly caught up in the story, thinking about the interconnectedness of problems we face, both as a rural state, and as a country. I smile when people start off the conversation “the problem is….” because of course that isn’t the whole problem at all, it is only part of the problem. Poverty, opportunity, education, class divisions and difference, these all play a role in what happened. There is a bigger picture to look at as well, and Reding tries to get us to look at it all–the close up as well as the 30,000 foot view.
The book focuses on methamphetamine in Iowa in general and in Oelwein, IA specifically, but there is a message that we should all take to heart and think about the responsibility we bear in the overall problem. The contributions to drugs in general and meth in particular being an attractive nuisance are in many communities–but why did this take place in rural America? The role of Big Agra and Big Pharma, mixed with illegal immigrants in rural America and smuggling through the southern border, are real. They are not overblown in the telling, and they each have a role. The recession is another factor–economic hard times seem to hit farm economies first.
Reding does a great job of sympathetically portraying the people who have been personally devestated by methamphetamine addiction, juxtaposed against those who face just the realities of rural Iowa life. The best in Oelwein is pretty hard. The worst is hideous. Reding does a masterful job of portraying people who have robbed their parents, poisoned their kids, and blown up their homes not as monsters, but as people. Mistakes were made. There is someone for everyone to relate to in the story. We do not pull back to an entirely moral stance, but rather have more of a “but for the grace of God go I” reaction to at least someone in the story. There are no real solutions put forward, but there is some hope offered–mixed with caution that we really need to think in a bigger and better and more connected way. The author demonstrates the value in carefully unfolding the factors that got us here and studying them. The book encourages us to look for the places that share these risk factors because it is unlikely to have gone away.