Book Review and Q&A: Tom Montgomery Fate — ‘The Long Way Home’

Tom Montgomery Fate

Prairie Lights, Iowa City -- Tuesday, Sept. 20 at 7 p.m., Free

To be born in the Midwest is to become acutely aware of the term “flyover country.” And once you are aware of it, you must decide whether or not you’ll embrace your life here regardless or denounce it and move somewhere else, somewhere more conventionally beautiful and wild.

Maybe, if you’ve chosen the former, you might harbor some guilt, fed by backhanded comments from people who have left or people who are aiming to leave. But if you find a little bit of beauty in where you are regardless, or if you’re trying to, Tom Montgomery Fate just wrote the perfect book for you.
The Long Way Home is a memoir that does not follow the rules of a traditional narrative. Rather, it combines themes of prayer, belonging and fishing into essay-style chapters anchored by Fate’s experiences traveling across the globe.

Each bite-sized essay reflects on a different journey Fate embarked on: from a writing residency at H.J. Experimental Forest in Oregon, to a revolution in Managua, Nicaragua, to a sabbatical at a Benedictine abbey in Maquoketa, Iowa. Through each chapter, readers ponder the relationship between life and death, prayer and fact, religion and spirituality, relationships and the self.

Fate reminds us persistently that the journey itself is the destination; home is not a place, but a feeling. And while these are cliches every reader has heard once or twice, Fate contextualizes them in a very personal way that is accessible, especially to those of us who share his midwestern roots.

Fate’s stories take place throughout different periods of his life, from childhood to the COVID-19 pandemic. Such a long time frame is necessary to frame the complex themes that are being discussed here. But there are times when conversations about life, meaning and prayer are accompanied by conversations about the pandemic, politics and social media. These are the only moments when the 160-page book edges on preachy and decentralized. There is a world where all of these topics fit together cohesively, but in such a small sample size, these parts feel like a lot to chew on.

Regardless, I found a lot of peace in Fate’s new release. It’s clear by the end that the only thing Fate is advocating for is for readers to slow down: physically, mentally, spiritually — and give ourselves over to the epiphanies that we only find with time and presence. Considering his incredible experiences across the globe accompanied by his honest self-reflection, I think it just might be worth a try.

The Long Way Home is the Iowa native’s fourth release. It is available now on Ice Cube Press.

Q&A with Tom Montgomery Fate

There are a lot of very big topics at play in The Long Way Home. How many of these discoveries happened as you were writing the book?

Well, you know, this is a memoir in essays. When memoirs became bestsellers all of a sudden, people understood that a memoir was not an autobiography, but looking through some aspect of your life, through the lens of that experience. It could be a birth memoir, cancer memoir, whatever. And so, for me, the challenge is always trying to figure out how to thematically link the disparate pieces. And travel, which is a pretty big frame, allowed me to connect these together. And the idea of journey, or journeying of course, is another huge idea. So journey can be internal, external; travel can be internal, external. And so that idea kind of made more sense to me as I worked on the book. That would be the thematic unifier.

One of the most interesting parts to me was your experiences in the Benedictine abbeys. Would you ever go again?

Yeah, I would. In the academic world, there’s a lot of negativity about religion, almost as if you’re stupid or diminished because you haven’t gotten over that yet. And of course, I’m thinking of Kathleen Norris and Wendell Berry and all the writers who still haven’t gotten over it yet. But one thing I’m trying to do in this book is to open up the idea of religion a little bit. Yes, there are right-wing nuts. One of them was president, who used religion as a marketing tool and read the Bible like it was an instruction manual rather than a work of art. The benefit of going to the abbey for me is a kind of intellectual and spiritual discipline.

In your book, you mention feeling like a tourist or out of place in some of your travels. What do you think is valuable about that discomfort?

So, it’s a lens on your own culture. When you go to another culture, what is it? What is privacy? How do people listen here? What does it mean to be courteous? What’s a line? What’s a clean bathroom? What’s public transportation? How do parents relate to children? So I mean, it’s hard because everything’s new. But again, it teaches you what all of those ideas mean in your own culture.

What was the process like to get this book to where it is now?

Well, the process I used to go through is, I used to write a 400-word essay. I used to call those framed moments. There’s some charged moment that I see in memory or see in front of me, and I get it down. And then I’d go from those 400-word snapshots to about 1,000-word essays, which I would try to publish in the Chicago Tribune or Christian Century or other places that typically take my work. And then from there, when I got a sabbatical, a few years later, I would flesh all that stuff out to 2,000 to 3,000-word chapters.

So there was a systematic lengthening, from an emotionally charged moment to a complicated, more developed essay over time. With this book, I would say it was more going from the 1,000-word essay in the Tribune, which a lot of these pieces are from originally, to the longer chapter. But I sit with these pieces for years.

This article was originally published in Little Village 2022 issues.

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