One man's 'View from the Heartland'

KC journalist's book reveals joy in the mundane

Sunday, October 26, 2003

For decades in small towns across Kansas, teenagers have lamented their geographic disadvantages.

"There's nothing to do here," they say. "This is nothing but a hick town."

David Chartrand didn't feel exceptionally rooted to his boyhood home in Olathe either. The Kansas City journalist grew up there in the 60s, went to Kansas State University for journalism school and had no intention of staying in Kansas to carve out a career.

But in May 1979 his little brother -- fondly known as Fast Eddy -- died suddenly and without explanation in a hallway of his parent's home. Eddy was 22.

"Suddenly my family was going through this wrenching ordeal," Chartrand recalls. "Almost overnight, the idea of not being around them and not being here and not staying connected to people who needed me, it just immediately lost its appeal. I just felt like I wanted to be around here and stay close to all of them. The more I did and the longer I stayed, the more I felt like this was where I want to be."

So Chartrand stayed. In the ensuing decades, he has established a reputation as a newspaper columnist known for his wit and compassion. He distributes his essays to daily newspapers across the country through Universal Press Syndicate and his family's business, Chartrand Communications. He won a first place award in 2002 from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and his commentary has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Morning News, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Family Circle magazine.

His first book, "A View from the Heartland," was released this month by Globe-Pequot Press of Guilford, Conn. The 184-page volume is a collection of short essays about Chartrand's family and growing up in the Heartland.

Finding the Heartland

The book also explores the very definition of Heartland and concludes that no one really knows where the supposedly über-wholesome place exists.


Special to the Journal-World

Kansas City journalist David Chartrand's first book, "A View from the Heartland," was released this month by Globe-Pequot Press. He will give a talk and booksigning at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Raven Bookstore, 8 E. Seventh St.

Kansas University geography professor James Shortridge in 1980 sent a survey to American college students, asking them to circle the states on a U.S. map that they thought were in the Midwest. Shortridge discovered, Chartrand writes, that "for most Americans, the Midwest is a figment of their imagination. It is a cultural mirage whose appearance depends on whom you ask and where they are standing when you ask them."

"To me, the Heartland is a metaphor for what's important in life and what people think is important in life," Chartrand says, "but you can find it anywhere."

That's a point he wanted to make absolutely clear in his book. In fact, he had "robust arguments" with the publisher about whether the book's title and packaging sent the wrong message about its contents.

"It's not about growing up in Kansas. It's not about being on a farm in rural America or anything like that. I try very hard in there to say that the Heartland is a metaphor for what's important to people," he says. "I do not subscribe to the idea that the only wholesome, great places to live without crime and that you can leave your doors unlocked at night are in the Midwest. That's just not true. And if you write a book that way, you immediately, in my opinion, would turn off a lot of people."

And that's the last thing Chartrand wants to do. Humorists, he says, depend on their ability to relate to people on a very personal level. To do that, you have to write what you know, he says.

"There are a lot of people who attempt humor and light commentary, but they contrive too much. You have to start with what you know and what real life is," he says. "What makes material appeal to people is because they see themselves in it.

"You work very hard at it, it's very hard to write and it's very time-consuming. But to the reader it's gotta come off effortlessly. Humor is kind of a paradox that way: What is great work to write has to be very easy for someone to read."

Big break

Chartrand got his start in the newspaper business running a tiny daily in northeast Arkansas and then covered local and state government at the Journal-World for about five years in the late 1970s.

"That was before the J-W had computers, probably before many people did," he says.

He worked for the Kansas City Times for a while, but, realizing no avenue for writing commentary existed for him there, he left to work at the family business, where he stayed for about 10 years, writing freelance for newspapers on the side.

His big break ALMOST came in the winter of '92. That's when a Wall Street Journal editor called and said she wanted to publish Chartrand's "Father's Christmas Letter to Santa Claus" on the editorial page.

"It was pretty 'wow' when you're just starting out," Chartrand says.

But, much to Chartrand's disappointment, the paper killed the story on Christmas Eve to make room for something more pressing. The following Christmas, the Wall Street Journal ran Chartrand's piece.

"You land anything in a million-circulation newspaper, you're going to get a lot of attention," he says. "It was crazy. It just got picked up all over the place and ran all over the country after that. I've sold it a zillion times to magazines and papers all over. ... That's kind of when I realized that I could do this and that short essay column was kind of my thing."

'No guarantees'

Chartrand reworked a few of his previously published essays for the book, but most of the stories are new. The collection swirls around a theme the publisher was interested in pursuing, he says.

"They really wanted to have something that, even though it would be released nationally, something with a very strong Heartland appeal to it," he says. "There's a lot of zeal in the publishing world about anything that connects to what people think the Heartland is in the post-9-11 era. You can tell that by a lot of the fiction and nonfiction that's out there.

"We talked a lot about the human concept and a book that would address the idea of the unpredictability of life, how none of us knows what's going to happen to us, there are no guarantees -- certainly 9-11 reminded us of that -- and that therefore it's time to think about the things that are constant and that are universal and remind ourselves the things that give meaning to our lives."