Review: Spying On The South

Tony Horwitz is one of my favorite writers on rural America. Michael Perry and Bill Bryson tell a romantic story of small towns that I do bask in, but Horwitz is less varnished. Everyone has a bias, but I find that Horwitz presents people he meets as people with all their faults and merits. It’s a bracing reminder that we share the country with human beings and not position papers.

Spying recounts another Horwitz trek across the country, stopping and talking with people. He has a knack for highlighting the most personal and historical areas he finds.

He hangs his book on following the route of Frederic Law Olmsted who wrote a series of articles about touring the South before the Civil War. He mostly walked the road and just talked to people and wrote. Journalistic standards were more lax then, so Horwitz assesses those stories skeptically. Olmsted was a staunch abolitionist and he both documented and supported efforts to overturn slavery on those trips. He’s an unreliable narrator, but an interesting route generator.

Most of Spying is Horwitz working his interviewing and exploring magic, and I enjoyed it. There is a surprisingly long section where he reprises the plot of City Slickers while seeming completely oblivious to that movie’s existence. Skip it if you don’t want to see a non-Jack-Palance cattle drive without the cattle. Overall I learned a lot and enjoyed the book.

Strongly recommended.

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