Reporting and writing by Nahla Bendefaa
An annual festival in a city recovering from a mass shooting. A small locally-owned bookstore. A craft brewery set in an old funeral home. Abandoned malls all across the state. These are only some of the places that David Giffels visits in his new book Barnstorming Ohio to Understand America as he presents an insider’s look into Ohio communities.
David Giffels released his sixth book, titled Barnstorming Ohio to Understand America, on Aug. 25. A lifelong Akronite, David traveled around the state of Ohio between March 2019 and March 2020 to get a sense of what it really means to be American at the dawn of the 2020 presidential election.
He describes this book as the culmination of his previous works and the authority they have given him over Ohio as a subject — including books about the rubber industry and Devo and The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt.
“My last book came out in 2018 and I was casting about for a new idea. My main goal was to get away from the ‘Ohio guy pigeonhole’ that I seemed to have gotten myself in,” says David, “Lo and behold, I wrote a book with Ohio in the title — probably the most Ohio book I have written.”
Ohio offers a distinctive look into American politics and society at this time. In fact, out of the last 31 presidential elections, Ohio aligned itself with the winning campaign in 29 of them. Additionally, no Republican has ever won the presidential election without winning Ohio.
“We’re in a moment where, you know, we can’t not write about the condition of the country,” says David, “It just seemed like Ohio is at the center of a lot of things. It’s always a reliable reflection of the national story and psyche.”
David drew inspiration for this book not only from the broader state of the country but also from a deep concern over the future that young people in the United States will face, particularly his children, to whom he dedicated the book.
The writing process was particularly intense for David, he says. Barnstorming Ohio is based around Ohioan cities and regions that David deemed reflective of the national story and represented the themes that he wanted to address. The travels he undertook around the state were marked by the breaking news, such as the Lordstown plant closing, Tim Ryan’s brief bid for the Democratic nomination for president, and the 2019 mass shooting in Dayton.
“Some of it was following things as they were happening, and some of it was going places that I knew I wanted to write about,” says David, “It was exciting. I was a daily journalist for a long time. There are some things I don’t miss about deadlines and reacting in the moment. But I liked doing the journalistic work. Even though a lot of these things were tragic, I liked being able to go to where things were actively happening and listen to people and understand what is going on.”
David’s travels took him through what he describes as the five Ohios —Northeast, Northwest, Central, Southwest, and Southeast — each reflecting different aspects of American society. Having worked on a similar, albeit less extensive, project in the past, David had a chance to deepen his understanding of certain aspects of the Ohioan community, such as the farming culture in the western part of the state.
“When I revised the book, I kind of deepened this question. It seemed to be on the mind of everybody and everything in the book. ‘Who will listen to me? And what do they want in return?’” says David.
The question is not only that of politicians and voters, but also of the whole state. Ohio is often misunderstood and forgotten, three years out of four until it is time for a presidential election. Then statisticians and reporters come to find out what this swing state is saying. In reality, Ohio is the tales of Leonte Cooper, an Akron native and political science student at the Ohio State University; Llallan Fowler, a bookstore owner in Mansfield; Bret Davis, a sixth-generation farmer in Delaware; Lacie Cheuvront, a single mother and activist from Hillard; and countless others who put a face to the narratives of what it means to be an Ohioan, and American, in these times.
By providing an Ohioan’s view on these questions, David presents a human, empathetic, and holistic take on the stories that reflect the state’s, and by extension America’s, identity.
David Giffels’s Barnstorming Ohio to Understand America is available at most local independent bookstores and national retailers. Limited signed bookplates are available at The Learned Owl in Hudson, OH, and Main Street Books in Mansfield, OH.
Nahla Bendefaa is a writer, photographer, and content creator from Akron, Ohio by way of Kenitra, Morocco. She enjoys rewatching Friday Night Lights, painting, and confusing Spotify’s algorithm while making her way through a seemingly never-ending tea collection.