In Prairie Town: Redefining Rural Life in the Age of Globalization, Jacqueline Edmondson describes how rural Americans interpret the changes their communities have undergone in recent decades. In documenting the views of residents of “Prairie Town,” Minnesota, Edmondson deftly links the economic and social changes experienced by rural Americans to broader trends of globalization and neoliberalism. As part of the Critical Perspectives Series of books dedicated Paulo Freire, Prairie Town thus demonstrates how rural literacies, in the Freirean definition, compete with dominant literacies to frame rural “progress” and “development.”
Edmondson begins by placing rural changes in context. Twenty-five percent of the U.S. population is affected by rural economic decline and, Edmondson observes, “hunger and malnutrition are serious issues in segments of this country where people take pride in feeding the world.” In part one, The Contemporary Rural Condition, Edmondson builds on this point to examine how economic and political developments have placed undue burden on owners of small family farms in places like Prairie Town. In part two, Rural Literacies, she draws on Paulo Freire’s definition of literacy to differentiate between “traditional” ways of reading rural life and “neoliberal” rural literacy. Finally, in part three, Toward a New Rural Literacy, Edmondson offers hope for transcending the limits of both traditional and neoliberal literacy through a rural rebirth that places agribusiness in check and celebrates rural history while avoiding blind reverence for the past.
In part one, Edmondson argues that rural America has undergone profound changes in the recent years. Fueled by government policies, the growth of agribusiness in the 1990s led to the decline of small, family-owned farms. As a result of the Freedom to Farm Act (1996), for example, two-thirds of government subsidies were allotted to 10 percent of American farmers in 2000. Rural towns have simultaneously experienced an outmigration of youth to cities and suburbs and the closing of hospitals and schools.
Rural regions in the Midwest have tried to respond to farming’s decline by diversifying the local economy, largely by attracting food-processing plants. Yet, as Edmondson recounts, instead of hiring local residents to fill their low-wage, low-skill jobs, such plants have often employed immigrant workers. This dynamic has highlighted the racism and ethnocentrism hidden (or not) in much of small town, White America. It has also changed the fabric of rural Midwest communities, once populated by Norwegian, German, and Finnish immigrants and now home to increasing numbers of Mexicans and Russians. Moreover, such jobs have rarely compensated workers well. Indeed, the growing wage gap between rural and metro workers in Minnesota has prompted references to “two Minnesotas.”
In part two, Edmondson describes two different rural literacies, that is, ways recent rural developments are interpreted today. In its traditional form, rural literacy held that “farm and land symbolized a way of life that was read as consonant with democratic ideals of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” Edmondson stresses the socialist and populist emphasis in traditional rural literacy. Schools in rural areas traditionally have reinforced the status quo through content, such as curriculum on agricultural management, and pedagogy, such as recitation. Traditional rural literacy supports such reaffirmation of rural historical roots. In reading the opening of a new Burger King, for example, proponents of traditional rural literacy might cast the chain restaurant as an “outside” establishment that threatens the survival of local, long-term restaurants that promote rural life.
In contrast to its traditional form, neoliberal rural literacy interprets rural life from a perspective that values market-driven development and competition in the wider world. People subscribing to neoliberal beliefs would read Burger King’s opening as a sign of Prairie Town’s vitality and celebrate the new jobs it created. As for farming and schooling, those who read Prairie Town with neoliberal ideologies likely identify many deficits in their surroundings. Judging farming and rural life in general to be inefficient, outdated, and inferior, these people cast farming as “a commodity rather than a way of life” and schools as an arena in which to prepare children to succeed elsewhere.
In part three, Edmondson offers ideas for a new rural literacy that would honor the best elements of traditional rural literacy while infusing new and important sensibilities, particularly in terms of racial and ethnic diversity. Alternative literacies have always existed in Prairie Town, Edmondson asserts, and “new agrarian literacies” may foster dialogue and activism within such places. These literacies encourage all rural citizens, young and old, to shape the development of rural life by participating in town decisions. Edmondson ends with a message of hope and faith in the rebirth of rural communities by their own design.
Timely and engaging, Prairie Town: Redefining Rural Life in the Age of Globalization illuminates a segment of American society that is often ignored. In detail, Edmondson examines how changes in public policy affect the lives of American farmers. Prairie Town is most engaging, however, when Edmondson focuses on how people in Prairie Town respond to pertinent changes in their lives, such as the establishment of Burger King or a visit by a vegetarian speaker to the high school. Although wider inclusion of residents’ accounts of how their lives changed due to policy and economic changes would have further strengthened this book, Edmondson does noble work in framing recent changes in rural American society.