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Book Review: Red Highways – A Liberal’s Journey Into the Heartland by Rose Aquilar

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Rose Aquilar, political blogger and radio talk show host, chose the year 2006, one of national upheaval, to trek through four red states — Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Montana — interviewing random bystanders, shoppers, Wal-Mart workers, state representatives, folks leaning right and left and dozens in between. She and her husband capture the essence of America in a political time capsule while driving a used minivan. They begin their journey from the safety of liberal San Francisco, changing time zones and hoping to change minds.

Her education and deliberate foray into red territories begins to take shape in the year 2004. But the execution is about as well planned as one a vegetarian, liberal, and California activist might produce – quit your day job, buy a used van, allow six months, pick places and leave the details to the universe. This political potpourri is delightful to read.

One does not have to be a vegetarian or love poor people to enjoy the insights that abound in this book.  Red Highways asks what country can survive political, social and religious dichotomies.

Democracy, as we all know, depends on choices: freedom in a country means choices, unbounded choices. But Red Highways identifies the myth behind the meaning of freedom, choice, and democracy that are clouded by poverty of place and spirit. Ms. Aquilar finds those living life sans choice held back by inferior education, dark skin, drugs, crime, and poverty. While a free country might be the correct answer to this question, Rose takes to the road to discover how a nation divided by the proverbial blue and red state maps makes its case for survival of the richest.

If honesty is a virtue then this book is filled with it. There are no red-only people living in red states just as there are no blue-only people living in blue states. The author discovers that it is voting or lack of it that creates differences between states and whether or not people have choices from abortion on demand to gay rights. But what strikes this reviewer as most relevant is how anti-intellectualism and pro-choice could derail decades of progress. Progressives like Rose believe that this can only be circumvented if we talk to each other and find the real person beneath the red and blue façade.

Because, of course, if the red states have their way abortion would be illegal, abortion doctors dead and gays burned by the state. Rose finds these thorns and more under the bushes of Texas and Mississippi where workers work but don’t vote and don’t know that their dearth of ballots is actually what keeps minimum wages below a living wage of at least $10.00/hour. That the people in the voting records of Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Montana are as poor as their wallets is no coincidence. And contrary to what many believe it is not teens only making minimum wage or babies but women and men in their 30s and 40s with families that have to live within these meager means.

As a Texan the Texas chapter rings loud and true. As a vegetarian I know first hand the detective work one must employ to find the right food when away from home. Rose's recall about this particular angst on the road is unadulterated.

The author finds that people in all states tend to listen to and believe everything the talking heads on the right spout, namely Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. No surprise there. But the woman who nails the country sentiment is found in the Mississippi chapter on page 119: “I change. I got with what I think is right. I’m liberal on some things and conservative on others.” Is this centrism defined? It would seem so especially in light of the recent passing of Proposition 8 in liberal California.  

In the final two chapters on Oklahoma and Montana, Rose and her husband uncover both racism and deep-seated Native American poverty. It is hidden. During her journey Katrina happens and the knell of that event is not lost on them. The now-visible poverty and desperation of New Orleans people fleeing Katrina to all-white states, where she is conducting her interviews, is juxtaposed with the invisible poverty already extant in those states. She did not know the outcome when it was unfolding but we know now that many whites, rich and poor alike, opened both their hearts and homes to black and brown Katrina survivors. This book predates Obamamania but echoes of change fill every heart chamber that Rose encounters.

Red Highways ends its believable journey with the Native Americans of Montana and the deep poverty witnessed along the way. It left this reviewer wanting more chapter and verse about the people of this land and these four states. 

Finally, as a fellow political blogger I highly recommend this highly readable travelogue that shatters stereotypes. Politicos, progressives and conservatives as well as sociologists and anthropologists will enjoy the riches of words and the profound insights that regular people offer to perfect strangers who politely ask their opinion on an often taboo subject – themselves. 

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