A Wandering Spirit, A Driftless Heart

Remembering the life and novels of David Rhodes one year after his death

Zev Mishell November 20, 2023

This past June, my best friend Henry and I decided to resume one of our oldest traditions: in times of transition, we like to drive to someplace new, usually with little more than a general destination in mind. After returning home to Chicago after our graduation from university, we jumped in Henry’s car and headed north for a weekend retreat at a rural monastery in southwestern Wisconsin, wanting to clear our heads after years of essays and exams.

Driving north from our sleepy suburb, we emerged onto the gorgeous prairies of southern Wisconsin. We crossed the lower half of the historic Ice Age trail, winding our way up to Mukwonago and past the Wisconsin state capitol building in Madison and its adjacent lakes. As we drove further west, we found ourselves in new territory, winding through a maze of knotted bluffs and valleys.

We had arrived in Wisconsin’s famed Driftless area, a name acquired from the region’s unique geological character. At the end of the last Ice Age over 10,000 years ago, the region was spared the immense geological transformation caused by retreating glaciers, which flattened much of the Great Lakes region, leaving behind glacial “drift,” or composite remnants of silt, gravel, sand and clay. As a result, its ancient hills and valleys survive to this day—“driftless.”

Based on a friend’s off-hand suggestion, we stopped at a bookstore in Viroqua. It was here, digging among thousands of books, that I stumbled on a discovery that would change the course of our trip: the extraordinary novels of David Allen Rhodes, a native Midwesterner who made the Driftless region his home in a farmhouse about 45 minutes away from where we were staying. Picking up his novel Driftless (Milkweed Editions, 2008), I was amazed by the book’s sensitivity, depth of character and emotional intelligence. I later discovered that what made this novel so special was the man behind it: like his books, Rhodes seemed to embody a life at once heartfelt and kind, brimming with empathy, compassion and a steadfast hopefulness about the future.

Rhodes had died half a year earlier on November 10, 2022, at the age of 75, following complications from cancer surgery. As I encountered his life and writing through Driftless, I felt one word from my Jewish childhood coming to the surface: hesed, which in English means loving-kindness. Hesed is unique because it’s a devotional form of kindness, one that focuses on how we live in the world rather than just how we think. Acts of charity and service are the embodiment of this ideal. As I dove deeper into the world of David Rhodes’s life and fiction, I learned that he offered something invaluable about this religious value and its ever-present lesson in my life. What can fiction, and the authors that so often create our most cherished works, I wondered, teach us about how to inhabit this vision of loving-kindness?

* *

David Rhodes was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1946, the second of three sons. His father was a pressman at the Des Moines Register, and his mother, a birthright Quaker and preacher’s daughter, taught second grade. At age 14, Rhodes was sent to Scattergood Friends School, a boarding school founded in 1890 by Wilburite Quakers in West Branch, Iowa, and in 1965, he left Iowa to attend Beloit College in Rock County, Wisconsin. Freed from the religious strictures of his upbringing and caught up in the cultural tumult of the mid-sixties, Rhodes felt restless and unsatisfied with the experience. After a year and a half, he left Beloit and moved with his then girlfriend to Philadelphia. (Rhodes had been registered as a contentious objector since he was 18, influenced by the Quaker belief in nonviolence).

Though he found city life exciting, Rhodes didn’t adjust well. He broke up with his girlfriend and moved to Vermont to attend Marlboro College, where he studied contemporary literature. According to Ron Kuka’s 2022 profile of Rhodes, it was there that he learned the importance of honesty in his writing. By his senior year, at age 23, Rhodes completed a thesis on the antihero in modern fiction and had begun working on the manuscript for what would become his first novel.

However, his mother, having been diagnosed with cancer years earlier, passed away at age 52. Back in Iowa, Rhodes moved in with his father. During that time, Rhodes later recalled, “I became bitter.” His mother had a significant influence on Rhodes’s upbringing, emphasizing both reading and religion in a household where great literature—including the Bible—was always present. “She was the center. My mother was the intellectual and the emotional center of that home,” Rhodes said in a 2008 profile by Kevin Larimer in Poets & Writers.

Despite his ensuing grief, Rhodes had found his calling as a writer. He managed to send a draft of his manuscript to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was accepted. It was 1969. Still only 23, Rhodes would begin a remarkable period in his life where he would meet his first wife Lucy Rhodes (Jordon), a fellow student at the workshop, and launch his writing career.

At the Iowa Writers’ Worship, Rhodes wrote voraciously, devoting his days and weekends working on the manuscript of his first novel and working the nightshift at Oakdale Sanitarium, an alcohol treatment center. For a workshop that prioritized both writing and building community, Rhodes, by his own admission, focused strictly on the former. At one point, he discovered an abandoned farmhouse and constructed a roof so that he could write there without distraction. By the end of the program, Rhodes published his first novel, The Last Fair Deal Going Down, which was greeted to remarkable critical acclaim. A reviewer for the Chicago Tribune called it “the best work of fiction to come out of the Midwest in many years.”

Cover art for the 1975 edition of The Easter House.

Over the next three years, he wrote two more novels—The Easter Home (1974) and Rock Island Line (1975), both published by Harper & Row—that earned him national attention. One reviewer for the New York Times wrote, “I wouldn’t trade a word of The Easter House for anything.” He also caught the eye of novelist and literary critic John Gardner. In his seminal On Becoming a Novelist, Gardner wrote that Rhodes had “one of the best eyes in recent fiction,” praising his attention to detail and moral direction. As Rhodes continued to write, he continued to work in various care industries—such as the alcohol rehabilitation center and the Sauk County Retirement Center—to support a growing family.

But soon his life took a remarkable turn. In 1977, at the age of 27, Rhodes was anticipating the birth of his first daughter—he decided it was time to give away his motorcycle, which needed repairs, and he traded it to a neighbor. But one day, when the bike had been fixed, Rhodes decided to borrow it one last time; on that ride he was in a horrible accident He missed a curve, and after crashing on a hill, he broke his back and was paralyzed from the neck down, unable to walk or move. He spent the next two years in a Madison hospital struggling to heal his body and mind. His marriage dissolved, and he became addicted to morphine after dozens of procedures meant to restore his health and alleviate the pain.

* *

Throughout his novels, Rhodes shapes his fiction with the struggles and challenges that defined his life. Fittingly, he never separates those issues from his sense of home in the Driftless region—his stories remain rooted in their unique rural landscape. There is a constant awareness of how the natural world molds human life and how human characters respond to the particularity of their landscape in remarkably different ways. Rhodes can move seamlessly from writing a gorgeous depiction of the natural environment to a dialogue between two characters, effortlessly leaping between their inner worlds and into the plot.

Cover art for Driftless, Milkweed Editions, 2008.

In Driftless, Rhodes tells the stories of people living in the fictional Words, an unincorporated community in rural southwestern Wisconsin, loosely based on his home in Valton, Wisconsin. It weaves together warm, flawed and sometimes hilarious characters to offer a window into a community’s life through the changing Wisconsin seasons. Just as the town is called “Words,” Rhodes uses measured language to describe the hidden inner worlds of his characters with the utmost seriousness and humility. The novel offers a play on the word “Driftless,” presenting characters who are deeply rooted in the region they call home.

There’s Cora, the headstrong wife of the farmer Grahm Shotwell, who takes on a corrupt milk cooperative for stealing from its members. There’s Gail Shotwell, Grahm’s sister, who lives alone, works in a factory by day and writes music at night. There’s Violet and Olivia Brasso, two sisters who struggle to reconcile after years of Violet caring for the younger Olivia. We read about Winnie Smith, the pastor of the Friends of Jesus Church in Words, and Jacob Helm, the owner of the town’s only small business, a car repair shop. There’s the retired farmer Rusty Smith who lives with his wife Maxine and struggles to accept the customs and habits of the neighboring Amish community until he works with them in repairing his home. There’s Wade Armbuster who takes Olivia on a high-speed chase and into the world of rural dogfighting. Throughout it all, we follow the lives of people outside of mainstream culture who find they cannot avoid those changes that rupture the social fabric, even as they attempt to preserve a sense of meaning and coherence to their lives.

Among the novel’s complex web of short chapters, Rhodes provides a guiding light: the book’s protagonist, unassuming July Montgomery. Rhodes first introduced July more than 30 years earlier in his novel Rock Island Line and in Driftless, much of his tragic past is assumed from this previous work: the death of his parents, the years of his childhood in the basement of a train station, his return to the Iowa heartland after years without a home. In Driftless, July has firmly rooted himself in the community of Words and takes on many roles: he’s a farmer, friend and mentor. But despite his connections—July is friends with everyone in the town—the depth of his relationships often goes unrecognized by the community. When the Reverend Winnie experiences a remarkable religious epiphany by the river, July is the first person to stop his car on the highway to check if she’s okay. Quickly, their conversation turns to questions about God, faith and the meaning of suffering. July tells her, “ ‘Not everyone is capable of seeing the things you see. Some of us have been too deeply hurt.’ ”

As I read Driftless, I saw an inherent connection between July’s steadfast endurance and the power of hesed, of loving-kindness, to hold one another in community. An ancient Jewish text teaches that acts of loving-kindness are one of the three pillars that uphold our world. While July and I are separated across the expanse of different religious traditions, his sacrifice for his community resonated strongly with how I try to embody my own sense of mission for the people in my life. Hesed isn’t necessarily about belief in something higher than us; it’s a way to treat one another as the expression of one’s faith. Even though July rarely attended Winnie’s services at church, he remained committed to the best of those same Quaker values of devotion, righteousness, and communal support.

In July’s struggles, I found a new gateway into how hesed inspires me to live more thoughtfully, not only to think and to get stuck in my head, but to rather strive to embody true care for others.

* *

By 1982, Rhodes had finally managed to wean himself off painkillers. He met Edna Kiemele, a school psychologist who would become his second wife. Though he lost interest in publishing, he managed to build a life with Edna, crediting her with saving him. “His delight in so many things. His enthusiasm. I mean, he genuinely enjoyed so much, despite his challenges. Or maybe because of them, I don’t know,” Edna said in an interview after Rhodes’s death last year.

Through it all, he kept writing. As Rhodes later said, “I didn’t feel sane unless I was writing.”

By an unlikely twist of fate, Ben Barnhart, a young editor from the independent Minneapolis publisher Milkweed Editions, discovered Rhodes’s early fiction and fell in love with it. Barnhart contacted Rhodes’s agent, wondering what had happened to Rhodes and why he hadn’t published anything in decades. Barnhart found out that Rhodes was alive and in fact had nearly half a dozen manuscripts in progress. Rhodes sent along an early draft of one such work-in-progress. Barnhart was captivated by the story, but there was one problem: they needed to pare down an over thousand-page manuscript into something more concise.

In his 33-year gap between novels, Rhodes had used writing as a way to wrestle with the most essential questions of his life: the meaning behind his accident, the way time heals but also aggravates our deepest wounds and pains, the quiet persistence required to keep hoping for a better future. These questions became a foil through which he could enrich his writing and connect to people more deeply.

David Rhodes speaking at an event for Milkweed Editions in 2009.

Rhodes told an audience in 2009, “It became clearer and clearer to me that the injury I had suffered and the infirmities that I had carried made me the same as other people and I could relate them to the things that other people struggle with, whoever they are. And all of a sudden, things changed and that was worth writing about. Then I was writing not so much my story as our story. Then I was comfortable being published.”

The result was Driftless, arguably one of Rhodes’s best works. Greeted with critical acclaim, it won the Milkweed Editions National Fiction Prize and was named a best book of the year by the Christian Science Monitor and the California Literary Review.

Rhodes did not stop there. In 2012, he published Jewelweed, a loose sequel to Driftless that continued to build on the themes of home, community, and the mystery of time. In 2014, he was diagnosed with stage four cancer and left Valton for Madison to live closer to his children. In September of 2022, a few months before he died, he published his final book, a work of science fiction set only five years in the future called Painting Behind Walls.

Even though Rhodes’s novels continued to widen in scope and theme, he maintained his distinctive style. He doesn’t shortchange anyone; all of his characters are filled with such startlingly real attributes and flaws. We get multiple perspectives on everyone, watching them as they grow, struggle and endure life threatening challenges.

And it’s here that his empathy shines the brightest: he succeeds in unpretentiously offering insight into people exploited by both the government and agri-business alike, the people who make up communities in an overlooked though geographically stunning area of rural Wisconsin. There’s the kindness between the characters, of the characters towards their home and the surrounding environment, and especially the kindness of the novelist to his writing. But more than anything else is the value of loving-kindness to teach us about the subtle, concrete ways we can better the world.

Rhodes once said, “When you find books as a young person, it transforms your life.” These books did, indeed, change mine.

Thank you, David Rhodes for what you have given us. May your memory be a blessing.

Zev Mishell

Zev Mishell is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School. He studies modern Jewish history, but he loves writing on whatever he finds fascinating, including local histories and his favorite books and writers. He’s originally from the Chicago area and hopes to return to the Midwest after graduate school.

Have thoughts or reactions to this or any other piece that you’d like to share? Send us a note with the Letter to the Editor form.

Want to republish this story? Check out our guide.

69