The farming town of Yamhill, in northwestern Oregon, is the epicenter of the jarring, despair-inducing new nonfiction book, “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, who will speak at Benaroya Hall on Feb. 5 as guests of Seattle Arts & Lectures.
About halfway between Portland and the Pacific Ocean, Yamhill (which had a population of 1,024 as of the 2010 census) is where Kristof grew up, on a farm that he and WuDunn, his wife since 1988, now own. The duo became the first married couple to win a Pulitzer in journalism for their reporting on the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
Having covered genocide in Darfur, child mortality in the developing world, global markets and technological advancements, Kristof and WuDunn shift attention to their longstanding friends and neighbors in “Tightrope,” their fifth book together. Why? The lives of many Oregonians have been damaged by familiar scourges affecting America’s working class: an absence of jobs, economic inequality, drug addiction and alcoholism, lack of health care, chronic diseases, family instability, domestic violence and suicide.
“We were traveling around and reporting on humanitarian crises abroad,” Kristof said in a recent phone interview. “Then we’d go home and see this humanitarian crisis unfolding in Yamhill, a community we love very much. We didn’t know how to process that, or what the larger story was.
“When we began to see mortality data for America as a whole, and how life expectancy has fallen three years in a row, we knew this was a national crisis and Yamhill was just one part of it.” Kristof said the end goal of the book is to raise awareness that will in turn lead to policy solutions. But in the short term, this book presented a new challenge to the journalists.
“In so many situations as reporters, we fly in and fly out,” says WuDunn. “We don’t have to go back there the next day. That’s what was different this time around. We were going to have to face our community.”
The couple said they had to reconcile that deeply personal connection with their subjects with objective journalism.
“You have no firewalls, no protections when you’re writing about old friends,” Kristof says. “This was a lot harder to write than our previous books. We worried about how friends in Yamhill would perceive it, and whether they’d feel we were airing dirty laundry in public. We were afraid readers would look at our old friends and say, look at them: they use drugs, they’re fat slobs. Just see them as caricatures rather than as complex people.”
Indeed, “Tightrope” vividly describes the destinies of people Kristof has known since childhood as they, their spouses, children or friends fall prey to abuse, drugs, prison time, disease and death.
Kristof and WuDunn use these Yamhill stories as a jumping-off point for looking at similar problems across the U.S., analyzing cold statistics to describe the full toll of economic pain in today’s American working class.
The project also made the authors consider the role of personal responsibility in self-destructive behavior.
“A lot of people we write about acknowledge they made many bad decisions with self-inflicted problems,” says WuDunn. “At the same time, most were born into class circumstances that put them far behind the starting line to begin with.”
WuDunn describes an unhelpful myth: that any one of us can grab the brass ring in life by lifting ourselves up by our bootstraps.
“That belies the huge successes of past government programs, such as the G.I. Bill of Rights, that helped expand the middle class in the U.S.,” she says.
Fighting that misleading notion is the first step to effecting real change.
“In Oregon, we’re always taught to revere the pioneer spirit. We’re told how our pioneer ancestors relied on rugged individualism, relied only on themselves. But they were responding to a government benefit program,” Kristof says. “They crossed the country to get to Oregon, because then they’d get 640 acres of homestead. Oregon was transformed by these programs that created wealth and opportunity, starting with homesteading, rural electricity, then with the G.I. Bill of Rights. That’s a model for how government can work with individuals to provide opportunity, invest in people, and leave everybody better off.”
“Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,” by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Knopf, 320 pp., $27.95
Author appearance: Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn will speak courtesy of Seattle Arts & Lectures at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 5, at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $5-$60; lectures.org