A Review of “Methland” by Nick Reding

methlandIt feels gross to call a book on the meth epidemic and its destruction of rural America beautiful. But Nick Reding is a compelling writer. Whether he’s describing a white clapboard farm-house, or the scenic landscape of Iowa, or the selective memories of a nose-less lifelong user, Reding describes the scenes with an often constrasting beauty. The book is of course very disturbing and depressing, as its content would necessarily make it so. Through his writing, however, Reding reminds us that methland is a real place in our world full of real victims. Methland reminds readers that addiction has a face and a name.

I have spent years now developing relationships with and loving countless numbers of addicts. Often in my efforts to help them, counsel them, and befriend them I have learned a great deal about myself and my own struggles. Their stories parallel my own story in ways that I would not have anticipated seeing or wanted to see. According to Reding the story of meth in rural America goes “a long way toward telling us who we are and how we fit into the world.” “Who we are may well surprise you,” he adds (2).

As early as 1999 the author had a sense that meth was shaping the landscape of rural America. He details countless run-ins with it across the heartland of America. “I even began to get the feeling that the drug was somehow following me around,” he writes (8). It wasn’t until 2005, however, that other people started to believe him, and so he returned to the Midwest to try to trace this crime story. What he discovered, however, was that meth’s impact on small towns was less a study in crime, and more a study in “sociocultural cancer” (11). Drug problems are always only in part about the drugs themselves, and to prove his point Reding explores the unfolding of this narrative through the lens of one particular small town: Oelwein, Iowa.

Oelwein stands as a metaphor for all of rural America, indeed for all of America in this book. Its story is our story. Its residents are us. Its heartbreak our heartbreak, and there is a lot of heartbreak to go around. The stories in Reding’s book catalogue abused and abandoned children, mentally disturbed abusers, destitute cities, and strapped government officials. It also explores the selfish interests of massive businesses, political abuses, and the often conflicting moralities of everyday citizens. The book weaves together a number of stories exploring how economics, job markets, drug trafficking organizations, and rural cultures all mix together. These factors all contributed to the major shifts in Oelwein’s way of life. Reding notes:

What it took three and a half years to fully understand (nine if I count back to my trip to Gooding, Idaho) is that the real story is as much about the death of a way of life as it is about the birth of a drug. (18)

Reding takes us along his journey to see how the history of meth in America is both more and less complicated than we might imagine. And how its impact on rural America in particular is still so significant that it is worthy of our attention.

The take away for me in this book is the important reminder that addiction is not an impersonal blight. The addicts in this book all have names, stories, children, parents, and communities. It is easy to look at addicts and to think of them as a cancer on a society, as “scumbags.” Reding, however, tells their stories. Stories of poor personal choices, yes, of bad decisions and brazen selfishness, but also of hopelessness, despair, and a lack of opportunity. For many he reveals that they had so few choices that using and selling drugs was all that life presented to them. As I read the book I was reminded of the town we just left, a town we love, a town beleaguered by addiction.

Rural America has a significant drug problem, one that is far greater than that present in most urban settings. It’s not because there are more addicts in small towns. There are assuredly more addicts in the Detroit metro than there are in Portsmouth, OH. Just as there are more addicts in Los Angeles than there are in Oelwein, ID. But large urban metros have more resources, financial and social, which can absorb the impact drug addictions have on those cities. Small towns lack the finances, police force, and government structures to meet its needs head on. Most smother under the weight of it. But that’s the other side of the story Reding tells too, of towns like Oelwein and Portsmouth that keep plugging along. Towns that believe in the possibility of redemption.

The book is, at a high level, an exploration of Kant’s philosophy of moral motivation. How can we strive for the betterment of our fellow-man? How can a city with no resources seek to better its community, seek to care for those under the controlling presence of a powerfully enslaving substance like meth? The answers aren’t very clear; even by the end of the book Reding is nowhere close to answering this question for us, but he shows us one town who can’t stop trying. At some level Reding himself is a man who can’t let this story go. From his first encounter with the reality of meth’s impact he has persisted in unfolding its story and origins. He was a patient and persistent journalist cataloging this history for us that we might be aware of its continued unfolding in the present. In that regard Methland is about all of us and for all of us. It’s a book about our family members, our neighbors, our cities and hometowns. It’s about the place we moved from and the place we moved to. It’s about our votes, our legal systems, our politics. It’s about our values, and our prejudices. It’s about our past, our present, and possibly our future. Methland is our land.

I have a love/hate relationship with this book. It is a worthy read, and a well-written book, but it’s a depressing reminder of how much work needs to be done. It’s a depressing reminder that our world is broken, that drugs will never totally disappear, that towns will disappear, and so too may people. It’s a call to action, but one that is made with humility and to some degree with resignation. It is in light of such realities that I am forced to read this book, care for my friends, fight against drugs in my community, and also desperately pray for Jesus to return. Methland is a good book, but it is also a reminder that what we really need is a new world.


  1. Benjamin P. Glaser says:

    I completely agree with your assesment of this book. I read it about a year ago and nearly everything he noted in rural Iowa is at play here in south Mississippi as well as in my home in West Virginia.

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