Scenes from the Heartland: Stories Based on Lithographs by Thomas Hart Benton

Written by Donna Baier Stein
Review by Sherry Jones

Donna Baier Stein has embarked on an intriguing mission in Scenes from the Heartland: imagining stories around artworks by Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton, a “Regionalist” artist whose popularity peaked pre-World War II with works depicting everyday Midwestern life.

And what a bleak and joyless struggle that life could be, judging from Stein’s tales. Her characters are hard-working, hard-drinking country folk prone to jealousy, violence, misogyny, racism—you know, the same issues we face today. Stein’s simple, stark, only-occasionally-lyrical prose fits well with the book’s themes, as well.

In the opening tale, Stein portrays the petty rivalries and hypocrisies small-town life so often engenders—and notes the leveling effect of tragedy. Her protagonist, Martha, is a schoolteacher consumed with jealousy and resentment toward the town’s attractive rich widow, Zula. It’s to Stein’s credit that Martha seems mean-spirited until we meet Zula and discover that we don’t like her much, either.

In the closing story, a small-town service-station attendant struggling with guilt over his mother’s death marries out of his league and pays the price. People wonder why Ruby, a beautiful, wild, Daddy’s girl from the city, would fall for Arthur, a small-town fellow with little money and even less ambition, and so do we—but Ruby’s attraction is never explained. In fact, her character remains an enigma to us and to Arthur even after four years of marriage.

In this book Stein comes close, but doesn’t quite breathe life into her characters. The tales feel plot-driven, the characters flat. We learn little about them, or at least not enough to make them complex and ambivalent, which is what humans are. For her next work, I would advise Stein― dig deeper. Tell us more. Just because Midwesterners are known as taciturn doesn’t mean you have to be, too.