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A Long Way from Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland

A Long Way from Home: Growing Up in the American Heartland

4.1 7
by Tom Brokaw

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Reflections on America and the American experience as he has lived and observed it, by the bestselling author of The Greatest Generation.

In this beautiful memoir, Tom Brokaw writes of America and of the American experience. From his parents' life in the Thirties, on to his boyhood along the Missouri River and on the prairies of South Dakota in the Forties


Reflections on America and the American experience as he has lived and observed it, by the bestselling author of The Greatest Generation.

In this beautiful memoir, Tom Brokaw writes of America and of the American experience. From his parents' life in the Thirties, on to his boyhood along the Missouri River and on the prairies of South Dakota in the Forties, into his early journalism career in the Fifties and the tumultuous Sixties, up to the present, this personal story is a reflection on America in our time.

Tom Brokaw writes about growing up and coming of age in the heartland, and of the family, the people, the culture and the values that shaped him then and still do today. His father, Red Brokaw, a genius with machines, followed the instincts of Tom's mother Jean, and took the risk of moving his small family from an Army base to Pickstown, South Dakota, where Red got a job as a heavy equipment operator in the Army Corps of Engineers' project building the Ft. Randall dam along the Missouri River. Tom Brokaw describes how this move became the pivotal decision in their lives, as the Brokaw family, along with others after World War II, began to live out the American Dream: community, relative prosperity, middle class pleasures and good educations for their children. "Along the river and in the surrounding hills, I had a Tom Sawyer boyhood," Brokaw writes; and as he describes his own pilgrimage as it unfolded-from childhood to love, marriage, the early days in broadcast journalism, and beyond-he also reflects on what brought him and so many Americans of his generation to lead lives a long way from home, yet forever affected by it.

About the Author: Tom Brokaw, a native of South Dakota, graduated from the University of South Dakota with a degree in political science. He began his journalism career in Omaha and Atlanta before joining NBC News in 1966. Brokaw was the White House correspondent for NBC News during Watergate, and from 1976 to 1981 he anchored Today on NBC. He's been the sole anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw since 1983. Brokaw has won every major award in broadcast journalism, including two DuPonts, a Peabody Award, and several Emmys. He lives in New York and Montana.

Editorial Reviews

Greatest Generation author Tom Brokaw reflects on his South Dakota boyhood and the distinctly American values that shaped his world in this elegantly crafted memoir of life in the heartland.
Chris Barsanti
The recent resignation of saccharine author and onetime syndicated columnist Bob Greene over sexual misconduct allegations apparently left a slot open for feel-good narratives from the heartland, a slot that South Dakota native and "greatest generation" chronicler Brokaw fills all too well. Being raised on windswept plains among hardscrabble immigrant farmers left quite an impression on the future news anchor, and it's in his descriptions of this place that the book comes alive. By comparison, Brokaw's insights into how the landscape informed his childhood and early adulthood are far less interesting. It's all too easy to imagine these sections as the script for an NBC news special; its rosy generalizations—"I learned a lot about baseball, friendship and life during those summers"—are the stuff of TelePrompters.
Publishers Weekly
"For as long as I or anyone in my family can remember, I have been a chatterbox, someone with a verbal facility and an eager attitude about exercising it," writes news anchor Brokaw in this follow-up to An Album of Memories: Personal Histories from the Greatest Generation. The author's tendency to fill space with words comes across loud and clear in these pages, as the book is essentially a soup to nuts oral history of an all-American kid's years growing up in the Midwest. Brokaw was born in 1940 in Webster, S.Dak., and lived in the area for the first 22 years of his life. The son of upstanding farmers who lived by the motto of "waste not, want not," Brokaw had a squeaky-clean childhood and adolescence, ruled by work, sports and family. His memoir reflects that straight-arrowed monotony, with chapters entitled "Games," "Boom Time" and "On the Air." And although the prose and subject matter are largely dry and mundane, Brokaw does occasionally reflect on the bigger picture, recalling, for example, that while he was going to high school basketball games, Rosa Parks's bus boycott was making history hundreds of miles away. His sweet recollections of his early journalism career-he got his start volunteering at a small radio station-will probably interest nostalgic readers more than young journalists. Peppered with photographs of "Mother and Dad helping out at Yankton's Teen Canteen, 1958" and other similar images, this tribute to an idyllic childhood should please Brokaw's loyal fans. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Journalist Tom Brokaw's hymn of praise to South Dakota, small towns, sweat equity, and family tells about "growing up in the American heartland in the Forties and Fifties," and takes readers from the author's birth in 1940 to 1962, when he "put (his) home state of South Dakota in a rearview mirror and drove away." Both of his great-grandfathers had settled in Day County in the northern part of the state. His paternal grandfather had been born in a covered wagon. Tom grew up with two brothers and parents who provided their children with food, shelter, and the values of honesty and hard work. Tom learned the joys of fishing, hunting, and sports. He was active in scouting and student government. He was even Boys State governor in 1957. Always a talker, Tom turned his natural talent to radio and later television. He was, by his own admission, a complete idiot in college. His future wife, Meredith Auld, was Miss South Dakota in 1959 and gave him an earful when he lost his focus. She was a high school classmate who didn't fall immediately for his charm. They are still married and have three daughters. His father Red was a strong, tough man, but his mother comes across as the center of their family. "For me, Mother was an early role model as a journalist even though she never worked in the field." Brokaw's life story is told with unsparing honesty. He does not shrink from the racism inherent in the lives of whites in South Dakota; he gives the subject of race its own chapter. Brokaw's story is a paean to some of the immigrants and their offspring who wrested a living from the uncooperative earth. His memory for names and places and incidents is phenomenal. KLIATT Codes: JSA-Recommended forjunior and senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2002, Random House, 233p. illus., Ages 12 to adult.
— Janet Julian
Library Journal
Brokaw reports on himself. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
“[A] love letter to the...people and places that enriched a ‘Tom Sawyer boyhood.’ Brokaw...has a knack for delivering quirky observations on small-town life....Bottom line: Tom’s terrific.”

“Breezy and straightforward...much like the assertive TV newsman himself.”
—Los Angeles Times

“Brokaw writes with disarming honesty.”
—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Brokaw evokes a sense of community, a pride of citizenship, and a confidence in American ideals that will impress his readers.”
—Richmond Times-Dispatch

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.35(w) x 9.52(h) x 1.11(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

A Long Way from Home

In 1962, I put my home state of South Dakota in a rearview mirror and drove away. I was uncertain of my final destination but determined to get well beyond the slow rhythms of life in the small towns and rural culture of the Great Plains. I thought that the influences of the people, the land, and the time during my first twenty-two years of life were part of the past. But gradually I came to know how much they meant to my future, and so I have returned often as part of a long pilgrimage of renewal.

When I do return, my wardrobe and home address are New York, my job is high-profile, and my bank account is secure, but when I enter a South Dakota café or stop for gas, I am just someone who grew up around here, left a while back, and never really answers when he's asked, "When you gonna move back home?" I am caught in that place all too familiar to small-state natives who have moved on to a rewarding life in larger arenas: I don't want to move back, but in a way I never want to leave. I am nourished by every visit.

On those trips back to the Great Plains I always try to imagine the land before it was touched by rails and plows, fences and roads. I can still drive off the pavement of South Dakota highways, find a slight elevation in the prairie flatness, and look to a distant horizon, across untilled grassland, and with no barbed wire or telephone poles or dwellings to break the plane of earth and sky. It is at once majestic and intimidating. More than a century after the first white settlers began to arrive, the old Dakota Territory remains a place where nature rules.

On a still, hot late-summer day,after a wet spring in the northern plains of South Dakota, the rich golden fields of wheat and barley, the deep green landscapes of corn and alfalfa surrounding the neat white farmhouses framed by red barns and rows of sheltering trees, give a glow of goodness and prosperity. It is hard to remember this was once a place of despair brought on by a cruel combination of nature and economic forces at their most terrifying.

This was a bleak and hostile land in the Dirty Thirties.

Families struggled against drought, grasshoppers, collapsed markets, and fear. Billowing clouds of topsoil, lifted off the land by fierce winds, reduced the sun to a faint orb; in April 1934, traces of Great Plains soil were found as far east as Washington, D.C. One report said the dust storm was so bad it left a film on President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Oval Office desk.

This is where my mother and father were raised and came of age, at the height of the Depression. It is where I was born and spent the first twenty-two years of my life, and it remains always familiar, however long I have been away. Whenever I return, I try to imagine the struggles my parents and everyone else went through here in the thirties. That time formed them-and through them, it formed me. I am in awe of how they emerged, and I am grateful for their legacy, although I have been an imperfect steward.

I left in 1962, hungry for bright lights, big cities, big ideas, and exotic places well beyond the conventions and constraints of my small-town childhood, but forty years later I still call South Dakota home. Time and distance have sharpened my understanding of the forces that shaped my parents' lives and mine so enduringly. Those forces are the grid on which I've come to rely, in good times and bad.

In the late 1800s, the Dakota Territory was one of the last frontiers in America, a broad, flat grassland where Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and their followers in the Sioux nation were hunters and warriors on horseback, determined to hold their land against the persistent invasion of white settlers who wanted to farm, ranch, and build towns along the railroad lines racing westward from the industrialized East and Midwest.

The Sioux won some battles, notably Little Big Horn in Montana, but they lost the war. The Dakota Territory was divided into two states, one north and one south, in 1889. My ancestors were among the early settlers in what became South Dakota.

My father, Anthony Orville Brokaw, was born on October 17, 1912, the last of ten children of William and Elizabeth Brokaw. His grandfather Richard P. Brokaw, the descendant of Huguenots who immigrated early to New York, had made his way to the southwestern Dakota Territory by covered wagon following the Civil War. He farmed and worked on the railroad before heading north in 1881 to found the town of Bristol and a small hotel, the Brokaw House, at the planned intersection of the north-south and east-west rail lines, eight years before statehood.

My mother is the eldest daughter of Jim and Ethel Conley, who farmed south of Bristol. Ethel took the train from Bristol to Minneapolis, her hometown, for Jean's birth; then mother and daughter returned to the remote corner of the prairie where Jim was tilling the ground behind teams of horses.

In the summer of 1996 my mother and I returned to the northern plains, the womb of her life and mine, for a visit that was at once nostalgic, reassuring, and a commentary on the social and economic changes in this country in the second half of the twentieth century.

As we drove east along Highway 212 from Aberdeen, South Dakota, toward Bristol, we passed a giant Wal-Mart with a parking lot full of late-model cars and pickup trucks; there were expensive new houses on large lots, and broad streets well beyond the city limits; giant John Deere combines, worth more than $100,000 apiece, moved efficiently through ripe fields of wheat, disgorging the small, valuable kernels into a truck of the kind called a Twin Hopper for its side-by-side bins that can hold a combined total of one thousand bushels. Many of the combines have air-conditioning and stereos in their cabs, to go with the computer monitoring systems that record the yield while the harvest is under way. Many of the smaller farms have been consolidated into larger tracts and organized as corporations with sophisticated business models relying on the efficiencies of mass production and the yield of genetically engineered grains. Much has changed, but still, a drought or a sudden hailstorm or a freak cold snap can undo all of the best planning and agriculture science.

Modern technology hasn't completely eliminated what my mother remembers of the sweat and heartache required for a farmer's life. But it is a far different world than when I was a child. As a town kid, I was attracted to the farm only by the prospect of a horseback ride or the chance to drive a tractor. I had no inclination for the work, much of it unending and involving uncooperative livestock in a muck of mud and manure or working in fields beneath a blazing sun.

South Dakota is two states, really, divided by the Missouri River. In a larger sense, the river also divides the Midwest from the Far West. East of the Missouri, in the midwestern half, small towns shaded by trees planted a hundred years ago are separated by clusters of farm buildings and quadrangles of tilled ground producing corn, soybeans, wheat, rye, and sunflowers.

As you move across the Missouri, into what we call West River country, the change is abrupt. On airplanes flying across South Dakota east to west, I like to tell my fellow passengers to watch the cultivated fields, the gold and green color schemes of corn and wheat, suddenly give way to the muted browns and the untilled sod once we cross the river. It is such a stunning change, it is as if someone flipped a page, and then another change comes two hundred miles farther. At the very western edge of the state, the prairie breaks up into the arid and eerily beautiful Badlands and then gives way to the Black Hills, a small scenic mountain range the Sioux people called Paha Sapa, the most sacred of their land.

I have lived and traveled in every quarter of the state, and I am constantly struck by the rawness of it all, even now, more than 125 years after the first significant wave of white settlers began trying to tame it. Even a summer night in a substantial dwelling in an established town can be a reminder of the primal forces of the old Dakota Territory when a storm blows up, filling the sky with mountainous thunderstorms and bowing the tall cottonwoods with cold winds that seem to begin somewhere near the Arctic Circle.

I am particularly attached to the Missouri River, that ancient artery that begins in central Montana and powers its way north before beginning its long east-by-southeast trek across the flat landscape of the Dakotas and along the borders of Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri. Large dams have slowed but not completely conquered the river of Lewis and Clark, the Sioux, the Crow, Omaha, and Santee tribes. Whenever I return to my home state I always try to swim in the river channel, just to feel its restless currents again, as a reminder of my early struggles to master them as a beginning swimmer. They taught me to understand force and use it to my advantage, taught me that to make progress often means giving a little.

On this trip back to Bristol with my mother in 1996, as I steered our rental car toward the distant eastern horizon, an old sensation returned. Up there in the northern latitudes, less than two hundred miles from the Canadian border, I feel as if I am riding the curvature of the earth, silhouetted against the sweeping arc of sky that so diminishes all below. I have now lived two thirds of my life outside these familiar surroundings, yet whenever I return I am at peace, and always a little excited to know that this place has a claim on me.

I am named for my maternal great-grandfather Thomas Conley, the son of Irish immigrants, who was working as a railroad conductor in St. Paul when he was attracted by the abundance of affordable farmland in Day County, South Dakota. Tom and his wife, Mathilda, moved in 1897 to Webster, the Day County seat, where Tom opened a saloon before moving on to a section and a half of prairie, 960 acres, southwest of Bristol, where together he and Mathilda began farming with horse-drawn machinery.

Tom Conley, at six feet a tall man in those days, quickly established a reputation as a hardworking and efficient farmer who, according to local lore, took off only one day a year: the Fourth of July. On Independence Day he'd drive a horse-drawn wagon from the farm to Bristol's main street for the celebrations, shouting to everyone, "Hurray for the Fourth of July!"

Tom and Mathilda Conley prospered in the early days of the twentieth century, sending three of their four sons to college. One went on to law school and another to medical school. My mother's father, Jim, graduated from a pharmacy college in Minneapolis, but he preferred farming to pharmacy and returned to Day County with his bride, Ethel Baker, a handsome and lively daughter of a foreman at Pillsbury Mills in the Twin Cities. As a wedding present, Tom Conley gave his son and new wife as a wedding present a mortgaged quarter-section, 160 treeless acres just north of his farm. It was so barren that Jim Conley often said it contained not even a rusty nail; black-and-white pictures from that time are startling in their bleakness.

A quarter-section of land was the allotment that the seminal figure of prairie literature, Per Hansa, filed for when he took his family into the Dakota Territory, in O. E. Rolvaag's classic Giants in the Earth. Powerful winds, broad horizons, "And sun! And still more sun!"-as Rolvaag vividly described this part of America that stretches from the Canadian border to Oklahoma, from Minnesota to the middle of Montana.

It was little changed in the first quarter of the twentieth century, when my parents were youngsters. Just as for Per Hansa and his fellow Norwegian settlers, it was a demanding place, whatever the season, for those who came to farm or to establish the small towns where agriculture and commerce intersected across the grassland. It is a place that reflects a century of transformation in America.

When my mother was born, in November 1917, the world was in turmoil. That same month Lenin took control of the Russian government and the Communist revolution was under way. America entered World War I at last, and General John Pershing led American forces into Europe. The war was an international tragedy but a bonanza for American farmers, as they moved into mechanized equipment and turned their grain fields into the bread basket of the world. Farmland in the heart of the corn belt brought prices two and three times what they had been just three years earlier.

Jim and Ethel were making enough money to start a new home and buy a Model T, the little black car that was the centerpiece of Henry Ford's rapidly growing empire. Neither of my grandparents left behind a personal account of their hopes and dreams, but I suspect they thought the farm would become their life work. Instead, it became a heartbreaking burden.

By 1930 they were trapped between a prolonged drought across the Great Plains and economic chaos in the international markets. Jim and Ethel, my mother, Jean, and her younger sister, Marcia, were hostage to the cruelties of what came to be known as the Great Depression. Between 1929 and 1932, the average net per capita income on family farms fell from $2,297 to $74.

Jim Conley admired Herbert Hoover, a native of nearby Iowa and a brilliant mining engineer who was an international hero for his organization of food programs for Europe following the devastation of World War I. It is likely that Jim voted for Hoover in the 1928 presidential election. But what happened in the thirties would make my grandfather an ardent Democrat for his remaining days.

Jim and Ethel Conley's hopes for a long life on the farm were wiped out. By 1932, Jim was feeding his corn crop to his hogs because doing so was more economical than taking it to market, where it would have brought less than a nickel a bushel. By my mother's junior year in high school, the Conley farm days were over. The bank foreclosed and the family moved to nearby Bristol.

Because my parents came of age during the Great Depression, it never completely left their consciousness. It would be too melodramatic to say they carried lasting scars, but it would be equally inaccurate to describe the Depression as just a benign passage in their lives. The residual effect went well beyond the bleak economics of the time. Living through the Great Depression formed other lasting values: an unalloyed work ethic, thrift, compassion, and, perhaps most important, perspective.

Copyright© 2002 by Tom Brokaw

Meet the Author

Tom Brokaw is the author of seven bestsellers: The Greatest Generation, The Greatest Generation Speaks, An Album of Memories, Boom!, The Time of Our Lives, A Long Way from Home, and A Lucky Life Interrupted. A native of South Dakota, he graduated from the University of South Dakota, and began his journalism career in Omaha and Atlanta before joining NBC News in 1966. Brokaw was the White House correspondent for NBC News during Watergate, and from 1976 to 1981 he anchored Today on NBC. He was the sole anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw from 1983 to 2005. He continues to report for NBC News, producing long-form documentaries and providing expertise during breaking news events. Brokaw has won every major award in broadcast journalism, including two DuPonts, three Peabody Awards, and several Emmys, including one for lifetime achievement. In 2014, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He lives in New York and Montana.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
February 6, 1940
Place of Birth:
Webster, South Dakota
B.A., University of South Dakota

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Long Way from Home: Growing up in the American Heartland 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Fan4SFGiants More than 1 year ago
A Long Way From Home is a great memoir of Tom Brokaw's recollections of growing up in the American Heartland from the end of  World War II to his college years all the way to his career with NBC Nightly News. A must read for anyone interested in daily life in America.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not as good as his other books, but still worth reading.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Tom Brokaw takes you on a life of experiences and fun through all of the amazing things Tom Brokaw had been through and covered for NBC. I proudly rate it 5 stars because no biographer or Tom Brokaw studier could say this good of a story with quotes like 'I put my town in a rearview mirror and drove away.' It's phenomenal. A+++++++++!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Tom Brokaw's book is a powerful book, because he relates his story in good times and bad times. Also the book give the oportunity to learm about his home state, South Dakota. I highly recomend to learm about Mr. Brokaw's life and the sensible person that he is.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Tom Brokaw is not only one of the most trusted, familiar faces to the American people, but now he has also gained the title of an outstanding American author. His personal perspective on the American Heartland is one that I can relate to and appreciate. He also does a remarkable job of conveying what life is like in rural America to those who have yet to step foot there. I've always been a huge fan and admirer of Mr. Brokaw's and this book just reieterates those feelings for me. This is a must read for anyone interested in vivid, creative writing on the comforting subject of life in America.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought that this book was very interesting and well written