Dairylandia: Dispatches from a State of Mind | wisconsinacademy.org
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Dairylandia: Dispatches from a State of Mind

Reviewed by Michael Hopkins

In a world of superficial relationships enabled by social media, Steve Hannah’s book, Dairylandia: Dispatches from a State of Mind, shows us the value of taking the time to connect with ordinary people through their extraordinary stories.

In Dairylandia, Hannah presents us with what he calls, “a little love letter to Wisconsin.” His thirty-two vignettes, many of which are drawn from his syndicated column, “State of Mind,” take the reader on a reflective tour of the Wisconsin people and places Hannah encountered during his time as managing editor for The Milwaukee Journal and CEO of the satirical newspaper, The Onion.

In every essay Hannah introduces us to someone we wish we knew. As we learn about the impact these people have had on Hannah’s own life and understanding of “Wisconsin-ness,” Hannah transcends the role of a journalist and becomes our friendly guide, taking us where the trail leads him.

Investigating the frog invasion that happened in Oconto (about twenty minutes north of Green Bay) back in 1952, Hannah got to know eighty-five year old Art Gering, a one time professional frogger. Through Hannah we learn about the old days when Gering made a living catching and selling thousands of frogs for both medical research and fried-frog legs at local taverns. “The word ‘frog,’ I learned then, could be a verb,” recalls Hannah.

Hannah introduces us to Ken Lange, a resident naturalist at Devil’s Lake State Park for three decades, and shares wisdom gleaned from the ancient stone cliffs. Emma Washa wrote a weekly column for The Boscobel Dial, a regional newspaper published in the southwestern part of the state, until she died at the age of 105. In her essay she provides some helpful journalistic advice to Hannah: “Try not to be boring. There’s already plenty of boring stuff out there. Nobody needs you to add to it.”

Hannah’s stories are anything but boring. With a reporter’s instinct, and a touch of carnival showmanship, he entertains and makes readers want to see who’s next. Because Hannah packs so much personality in every essay, Dairylandia is perhaps best read in small bites. While each essay leaves behind an aftertaste of nostalgia, each also serves as a reminder that, if we slow down and get to know the people around us, everyone has a story, a legacy in process, and a lesson worth learning.

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Michael Hopkins is the first-place winner of the Wisconsin People & Ideas 2018 Fiction Contest and the third-place winner of the 2019 Fiction Contest. Hopkins lives on a small farm in Neenah, Wisconsin, with his wife and their dog, cats, and chickens.

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