A Piece of Northeast Iowa from Keith Pilapil Lesmeister’s Mississippi River Museum; Reviewed by Andrew Polewarczyk

Keith Pilapil Lesmeister’s Mississippi River Museum, published by WTAW Press, is a rumination on internal distance. The story’s cast of characters is remote in their interconnectivity, which is accentuated by its location in rural Northeastern Iowa. All of this is intertwined with an absence of family and its effect on the characters.

Lesmeister pulls back the curtain on racism that can be inherent in rural communities. The revelation of stereotypes lends to the sense of distance permeating the book. Oversimplification in the media can give the impression that middle America is exclusively “white.” Mississippi succeeds in supplanting this misbelief  in a way that gives Joe’s observations a keener tone. Lesmeister himself hails from Iowa and his unflinching writing style makes this regional narrative approachable.

The book begins with protagonist Joe Patterson, an out-of-work mechanic and construction worker. On top of losing his job, Joe has recently separated from his fiancé. With resources running low, Joe travels to the rural town of Lansing, Iowa, on the Mississippi River. 

Joe’s deceased father left him an unfinished cabin on a small piece of land. He arrives at the cabin with the plan to fix it up, adding fixtures, including an actual toilet. The goal is put the place up for sale but the stripped-bare condition of the cabins turns into a large challenge. On Joe’s first night, he only finds a can of sardines and some Ritz crackers in a cabinet. This is speaks to Joe’s emotional emptiness when he arrives in Lansing. 

After Joe’s first night in the cabin, he runs into a twelve-year-old boy named Christian. Christian has a troubled and complicated home life living with the not-so-motherly Denise and her redneck boyfriend.   

Joe and Christian develop an almost immediate bond, as demonstrated early in their friendship when he offers Joe a cigarette. “‘You don’t need to smoke in front of me.’ He [Joe] remembered this about himself when he was the kid’s age, trying to impress older men, smoking, swearing, swigging from beers.”

As more is revealed about Christian’s home life, Joe’s anger grows, and he begrudges the situation. Witnessing Christian’s predicament, Joe begins reflecting on his own relationship with his father. Work continues on the cabin, but a confrontation over Christian’s living arrangement looms large. But in the end, Joe and Christian are brought to a place where there is hope for the future. 

The bond between Joe and Christian is further deepened when they realize they both come from a mixed-race heritage. Joe is half Filipino, while Christian doesn’t know his exact background. Denise’s boyfriend refers to Christian as a “half-breed,” a moniker that harkens back to similar slurs used by Joe’s grandfather. “Whenever he [Joe] heard those words—chink, gook, slant-eyes, or now half-breed—he thought of his grandfather, his father’s father, who used to tote him around in an old Chevy pickup truck, taking him to the animal feed stores and showing him off to his friends. His grandfather would introduce him, ‘This here is my little chink.’”

These incidents expose an underlying racism in rural Lansing. But there is a more extensive commentary on stereotypes at play in this story. Denise’s boyfriend is never given a name but is simply called the “hillrod.” The term is slang for the caricature of a redneck who is often involved with vehicles in some manner. In this case, he is a trucker, illuminating the stereotype of the poor, rural town on the slow-moving Mississippi.

“That hillrod, all he calls me [Christian] is half-breed this, half-breed that. ‘Hey, half-breed bitch, go get me a beer,’ or ‘hey, half-breed spic, go tell your worthless mother to make me a sandwich.’ But she ain’t my mom. She’s just the woman my dad was with before he took off for wherever. Don’t know where, don’t know where my real mom is, neither of them.” 

A strength of Lesmeister’s story is the setting of small-time Lansing. Joe’s observation of his surroundings lends personality to the town. There are two bars, but the one grocery store is inconveniently closed on Sundays. Feeling Lansing through Joe’s eyes demonstrates a tenacity of place. Lesmeister includes details unknown to those who haven’t experienced life on the Mississippi: catfish have stingers, or boiling water must be poured over them to remove their skin—all of which serve to ground the reader in Lansing.

The remote setting of the Mississippi River Museum reflects the larger theme of distance prevalent in the book. Lansing feels removed from the greater world, mirroring the gap which arose between Joe and his father. In turn, this separation is echoed between Joe and Christian. Joe wants to reach out and protect the boy but is hindered by his own internal distancing. “He stared at the foil on the floor, chewing, unable to do anything about the nagging rage that arose in him. Denise, the hillrod. It was none of his business, and yet, it was his business. He felt a gnawing sense of obligation. To the kid.” Joe’s paternal attitude toward Christian echoes the relationship lost between him and his father. After his mother passed away, Joe though their shared grief would bring him closer to his father but instead it led to an ever-expanding distance. Through Christian, Joe seeks to redeem this absent relationship. 

In a similar manner, this distance is prominent in Christian’s relationship with Denise and the hillrod. While Christian hates the hillrod, he appears more physically afraid of Denise yet also protective in a contradictory manner. Christian’s emotional separation from them belies a distancing within his own emotions as he copes with his living situation.

“Say,” he [Joe] said. “I’m curious, that hillrod stay with you a lot?”

“At the house?”

Joe nodded.

“Few times a week, I guess. But I scared him off last time, told him I’d kill him if he came back around.” 

“Why’s that?” 

“He’s always poking at Denise, pissing her off. And he drank the rest of my OJ.” 

Overall, the Mississippi River Museum is a memorable introspection into the lives of Joe and Christian. Lesmeister does an excellent job of writing from inside Joe while using the second-person perspective. Joe’s interior life becomes as important, if not more than his physical actions. 

The rural town setting provides a satisfying backdrop that allows the character’s personality to rise to the surface. Lemeister brings Lansing-life’s on the Mississippi into the story in such a way that feels organic to those who have never experienced the location. 

In the end, the book provides a sense of hope, a hint of redemption, and the conquering of distances. 

Andrew Polewarczyk is a creative nonfiction writer living in central Massachusetts. He holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and reads for Hunger Mountain Review