By Mark Bennett
Indiana spent 2016 in a strange place — illuminated in a spotlight.
Instead of its status as a fly-over state, the planes landed on Hoosier soil occasionally. Politicians and news outlets arrived in spring for the Indiana primary, where the state pastime, basketball, became a campaign issue.
America watched as Indiana voters handed Donald Trump the Republican presidential nomination. Unlike rival GOP candidate Ted Cruz, who shot a brick by referring to a “basketball ring” inside the “Hoosiers” gym in Knightstown, Trump adroitly brought his hoops alter ego, Bob Knight, to his rallies. (Imagine Trump trying to sell The General on the virtues of Twitter.)
Indiana drew curiosity again in July, when Trump picked Gov. Mike Pence as his vice presidential running mate. Four months later, political drama zeroed in on Vigo County, America’s bellwether, the county that picks the presidents. Vigo did it again this year, accurately mirroring the national outcome by voting for Trump over Hillary Clinton.
Then the cameras and politicos left, and life went on here, just as it has for two centuries.
Hoosiers and Terre Hauteans already were shining a spotlight on themselves throughout 2016, a rare gesture based on history, not politics. Both Indiana and the city celebrated bicentennials this year. The moment was captured in a variety of ways, including a smorgasbord of books that might interest Hoosiers in the Christmas and the year-end holidays season. Let’s explore a small sampling, here.
The folks at Indiana University Press published nearly 20 books this year (see their website: iupress.indiana.edu) including the crowd-sourced “Undeniably Indiana.” It contains recollections and tales told by Hoosiers themselves and solicited through social media. The quirky storytelling gives Undeniably a homespun flavor as the writers ruminate on John Mellencamp’s rocking reflections of days “when dancin’ meant everything,” Theodore Dreiser’s “Hoosier Holiday, outhouses, drive-ins and my favorite, the Thorntown gorilla.
Veteran journalist Douglas A. Wissing covers similar territory, with eloquent and polished style, in his, IN Writing: Uncovering the Unexpected Hoosier State. Wissing highlights people, towns and events that carried impact beyond Indiana’s borders. For example, he describes the impact of Prohibition on communities such as Terre Haute, where a thousand people lost jobs as the local breweries and 263 bars closed. Of course, bootleg liquor flowed here and elsewhere, which Wissing notes with a quote from Will Rogers: “Prohibition is better than no liquor at all.”
Oddball Indiana by Jerome Pohlen contains comical and strange facets of Indiana life, kind of a Route 66 meets Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. It’s worthy of bathroom reader status, and handily features addresses and phone numbers of sight-seeing spots. (Extra fact-checking would help, if it gets revised. Ted Kaczynski, for instance, is not incarcerated at the Terre Haute Federal Penitentiary as the book states.)
Picture books, ripe for coffee tables, emerged, too. “Indianapolis: The Circle City by Lee Mandrell highlights the state capital, while the intriguing “One Day in May: 24 Hours in the Life of Indiana” relies on the photographic eyes of hundreds of Hoosiers. “One Day includes more than 140 pictures snapped by Indiana residents across the state on May 20, and then sent to the IU Press, ranging from a front porch in Terre Haute covered in Indy 500 checkered flags to kids playing in the rain by a Parke County covered bridge.
Others get more specific. Readers may be simultaneously enlightened and agitated by Indiana’s 200: The People Who Shaped the Hoosier State, edited by Linda C. Gugin and James E. St. Clair. They chose 200 difference-makers from a variety of backgrounds, and limited the choices to people now deceased, including Eugene Debs, Dreiser and brother Paul Dresser, John Wooden, Tony Hulman, Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, Michael Jackson and others. Still, no Max Ehrmann, “Three Finger” Brown or Scatman Crothers? It’s fascinating, comprehensive work, regardless.
Likewise, Mapping Indiana: Five Centuries of Treasures from the Indiana Historical Society should thrill map geeks (that’s a thing) and weekend surveyors (maybe that’s a thing), or Hoosier history lovers. The book is massive, beautiful and educational. Relic motorist maps recall the golden age of travel, while “bird’s-eye view” maps as old as the 1860s show cities, block by block.
Wabash Valley life fills a handful of 2016 books, too. This year brought the Civil War-based “A Vigo Volunteer Writes Home by Henry Warren, Tails from the Exotic Feline Rescue Center by Stephen D. McCloud and Joe Taft, and Celebrating 200 Years: Terre Haute 1816-2016 from the Tribune-Star and the Vigo County Public Library.
Of course, books on basketball happened, as well. Russell Grieger chronicles The Perfect Season: A Memoir of the 1964-65 Evansville College Purple Aces. It captures the days of Jerry Sloan, Herb Williams and Coach Arad McCutchan, long before Donald Trump met Bob Knight, and before Ted Cruz waxed nostalgic about a basketball ring.
Yes, Indiana played a supporting role in the Campaign 2016 theatrics, but as the stack of books on Hoosiers produced this year confirms, we had a story to tell long before the election spotlight hit.
Mark Bennett is a writer for the Tribune Star in Terre Haute. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.