Karen's Reviews > The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America

The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson
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's review
May 18, 2008

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bookshelves: travel, humor, home-library
Read in September, 2008

When reading this book, American readers may very well feel like they are eavesdropping on a conversation not intended for their ears. This is because Bill Bryson obviously intended this book to be read by a British audience.

There are lots of laughs in this book. His depictions of Iowa made me laugh until I had tears in my eyes. For example, his explanation for why so many farmers are missing fingers:

"Yet, there is scarcely a farmer in the Midwest over the age of twenty who has not at some time or other had a limb or digit yanked off and thrown into the next field by some noisy farmyard implement. To tell you the absolute truth, I think farmers do it on purpose. I think working day after day beside these massive threshers and balers with their grinding gears and flapping fan belts and complex mechanisms they get a little hypnotized by all the noise and motion. They stand there staring at the whirring machinery and they think, 'I wonder what would happen if I just stuck my finger in there a little bit.' I know that sounds crazy. But you have to realize that farmers don't have whole lot of sense in these matters because they feel no pain. It's true. Every day in the Des Moines Register you can find a story about a farmer who has inadvertently torn off an arm and then calmly walked six miles into the nearest town to have it sewn back on. The stories always say, 'Jones, clutching his severed limb, told his physician, 'I seem to have cut my durn arm off, Doc.' It's never: 'Jones, spurting blood, jumped around hysterically for twenty minutes, fell into a swoon and then tried to run in four directions at once,' which is how it would be with you or me."

This stuff cracks me up. Maybe it's because I grew up in Iowa too.

From an American's point of view, I was at times amazed by the important landmarks Bryson missed seeing or failed to appreciate. He drove by Monticello, for heaven's sake! In Springfield, Illinois, he "drove around a little bit, but finding nothing worth stopping for" he left -- Springfield, Illinois -- the home of Abraham Lincoln and his burial place! He passed up touring the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, because it cost too much! He called Gettysburg a flat field -- a battlefield of such varied topography as to make one wonder whether Bryson actually visited it! He missed Lake Tahoe! He also missed seeing Acadia National Park near Bar Harbor, Maine. Nor did he have any lobster along the Maine coast. Yet he felt informed enough to conclude that there was nothing special about Maine. Hurrumph!

These failings may be forgiven though, because he has lived away from the United States for a long time. And, to be fair, he traveled far and wide and saw many wonderful places. From his well-written depictions, I've regained a desire to see places in the United States I haven't visited yet, including Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; and Mackinaw Island, Michigan.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and enjoyed many laughs in reading it, which is why I like reading Bryson's books so much. But he seemed to tire out toward the end of the book and toward the end of his travels. His outlook became more and more jaundiced -- which is not good, when his outlook is generally jaundiced to begin with. Part I is the best part of the book, which focuses on the Midwest and East Coast. Part II, about Bryson's travels in the West, seems tacked on and unnecessary for the book (except for his description of his drive through the Colorado mountains to Cripple Creek and his depiction of his first view of the Grand Canyon ("The fog parted. It just silently drew back, like a set of theater curtains being opened, and suddenly we saw that we were on the edge of a sheer, giddying drop of at least a thousand feet. 'Jesus!' we said and jumped back, and all along the canyon edge you could hear people saying, 'Jesus!' like a message being passed down a long line. And then for many moments all was silence, except for the tiny fretful shiftings of the snow, because out there in front of us was the most awesome, most silencing sight that exists on earth.")).

*There is some swearing in the book.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Elin Great review and agree that the Grand Canyon bit was great.

From the PoV of a Brit though I have to say I think this was the weakest I've read so far, because it's like he was doing a tour of seedy motels and awful diners rather than the real highlights of the US. It gives the impression that there is practically nothing to see in the US - particularly for a non-American, which I find impossible to believe. It didn't reveal any hidden gems (I already know I want to see the Grand Canyon and national parks, for instance. Isn't there anything a little less obvious?)... and there was an inordinate amount of complaining really. So 3 stars from me too.

Karen All fair points, Elin. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

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