Conversation with a Bookseller: ‘Lost in Summerland’ by Barrett Swanson

Elizabeth de Cleyre
11 min readMay 17, 2021


In late February of 2020, Barrett Swanson volunteered as a victim at Disaster City, a sprawling training facility for first responders. The coronavirus had not yet reached pandemic proportions, and it quickly exceeded some of our worst-case scenarios by the time his essay was published in Harper’s in June. Only a few months into the uncertain timeline of the pandemic, Swanson reflects on his stint at Disaster City, where he feels as though he’s “playing a role in a palliative narrative,” and “instantiating a myth that the country repeatedly tells itself — that there was nothing we could’ve done, that no one can be blamed.”

The piece was so striking, I e-mailed the publisher and asked if they could send me a copy of his forthcoming essay collection, Lost in Summerland. Counterpoint sent a PDF, which I had printed at my local copy shop. On a sunny evening in August, I was on my couch, paging through the first essay “Notes from a Last Man,” when the Health Department called. The woman on the other line asked if I had spoken to the testing center. I put the book down and said no, no one had called me.

When I hosted book clubs, I often started by asking what everyone’s experience of the book was like — not if they liked it or disliked it, exactly, but whether it made them feel uncomfortable, for instance, or seen, or how it informed their lives off the page. For me, Lost in Summerland both arrived at a strange and pivotal time and captured these strange and pivotal times in remarkable prose. The book kept me company while I quarantined alone in my apartment, only leaving it to walk my dog, feeling eerily short of breath. I didn’t know it yet, but this marked the beginning of yet another long lonely spell, with extreme isolation backdropped by the pandemic’s peak, the election, and winter in Wisconsin. Throughout that time, I returned to certain films or books, including Lost in Summerland (and as I’ve already written, The Last Dance). Although comforting to return to the same pieces over and over, each time finding something new, I also felt alone in my reading of it — not knowing what anyone else would think, and wondering if it had simply struck me at an extraordinary time and place in my life, making the prose feel extraordinary.

A lot has changed since September, but what I wrote in the introduction of an interview with Swanson still holds true for me: The essays that comprise Lost in Summerland perfectly encapsulate the urgency and complexity of these strange times. It’s awe-inspiring, if not occasionally disconcerting, to see the world refracted back in pristine prose — especially in a time period which often evokes a funhouse mirror. Swanson’s work feels simultaneously timeless and prophetic, mining the past to find resonances and reverberations to carry us into the future. The ability to see the world clearly and express it eloquently is a superpower, and Swanson’s prose doesn’t stop short of simply seeing; it’s obvious in these essays that the narrator also feels things deeply — a refreshing departure from the distant, feigned objectivity projected by most journalists.

After a year (and change) of limited human interaction, we’re pretty starved for good conversation — even missing the days of eavesdropping on a good conversation at a cafe or bar. So in lieu of a traditional book review, Margaret Leonard of Dotters Books generously corresponded with me via email with her thoughts on Barrett Swanson’s essay collection Lost in Summerland (out May 18 from Counterpoint Press).

Elizabeth de Cleyre: When we first emailed about Summerland, you mentioned that you love knowing the places he’s talking about in the essays — especially Milwaukee, where you previously lived — and how it made you feel like you were somewhere other than stuck in your house. That felt so true for me as well — that reading these essays allowed me to travel to other parts of the country when I couldn’t physically travel at all. And I’m ashamed to admit that in the four years I’ve lived in Wisconsin I’ve seen very little of the state, but reading essays centered here made me feel more connected to the place, at a time when I also felt disconnected from the state and our community here in Eau Claire. Parts of Lost in Summerland felt like reading a thirty-something, urban version of Wisconsin native Michael Perry, and it was so refreshing to read reporting and essays from someone not based in a major city like Chicago, New York, Portland, LA, or Seattle. It feels like so much of publishing features these places, and Swanson’s work dives into other oft-forgotten corners of America to provide glimpses and critiques of our society and culture: a men’s retreat in rural Ohio, a utopian society in Florida, a veteran-owned farm in Wisconsin. What are your thoughts? Or how did your sentiment evolve as you read the book, or after you finished it?

Margaret Leonard: My experience of reading Summerland was a bit revelatory. I’m so hesitant to say that because sometimes that can feel like such a disingenuous or hyperbolic bit of praise to add to a review. But I really did feel that way. I have to admit that when I first saw Swanson’s book on Counterpoint’s list of upcoming releases, I wasn’t very interested in reading it. I wasn’t sure if it was for me. Do I need to read a collection of personal essays written by a guy traveling around the country; poking into nooks and crannies in order to further reveal the deep divisions in our country? It wasn’t until you mentioned how much you loved it that I got back in touch with Counterpoint to see if I could get a copy. I’m so glad that I did. I was blown away by how much I needed to read this collection.

As a cis-white woman, I don’t often feel underrepresented or voiceless. I was, however, born and raised in Wisconsin — with short interludes in Texas and Illinois, and college in Minnesota. My Midwesterness is an essential part of my identity, and often, especially in intellectual and critical conversations, we’re completely overlooked. Or perhaps underestimated is a better way to describe it. Either way, Barrett Swanson absolutely gives voices to those of us in the flyover states often discounted as tellers of stories and people with diverse experiences and opinions. This is a love letter to the Midwest, and to Wisconsin, specifically. I didn’t realize how much I needed that.

EDC: I’m selfishly very glad you reconsidered reading Summerland after I mentioned loving it. ‘Selfishly’ because I wanted to talk to you about it! Also glad because there’s a certain vulnerability that comes with recommending a book, and not knowing if what landed with me as a reader will land for someone else. A book of essays positioned like this (as you mentioned), could go very wrong very quickly (white guy travels across the country exploring its fractured narratives!) but thankfully doesn’t. It joins a very long tradition of (male) essayists or journalists embedding with or reporting on subcultures or communities, yet Swanson’s pieces feel like a marked departure from the distant, ‘invisible’ journalist, in that he includes enough of himself as a narrator so that we as readers understand the stakes, or why he’s so invested in what he’s writing. Which, in turn, makes me feel more invested in reading whatever he’s writing about.

It also feels like a marked departure because, as you noted, he is Midwestern, and flyover states are often discounted or ignored, or treated as quirky or weird. I’ve only spent four years here in Wisconsin — with the rest of my life spent along either coasts — and I’m still learning the incredibly rich set of cultures and traditions here and how the place informs conversations, ways of thinking, and ways of living.

I keep coming back to the essay “Calling Audibles,” which is about the language and rhetoric of football. The sport holds a particular reverence in Wisconsin (which I did not understand until moving here and learning that the Packers are the only major professional sports team owned by fans), but Swanson heightens that reverence in a way that both acknowledges the grim realities of the sport and proposes a different way of thinking about it — a proposition that feels rooted in his being from here. I’m also amazed about how an essay ostensibly about football can also be about so much more without being too much. “Calling Audibles” touches on the history of football, the way 9/11 impacted how we talk about the sport, Swanson’s experiences as a quarterback in high school, and his relationship with his father, all of which also circles around considerations of masculinity, which is woven throughout the collection.

I’m curious which essays or excerpts felt especially revelatory to you, or if it was revelatory in its entirety. You also mentioned how he carries that Midwesterness out into the world with him, which I hadn’t considered and love that idea.

ML: Culture is such an interesting concept. I spend so much time thinking about other cultures, hoping to travel to different places in the United States and abroad in order to experience new foods, celebrations, and just ways of being. But I almost never think of the Midwest as having much culture — at least not in a conscious way. That is such an oversight on my part. We have a rich culture, much of it centered around the weather. Small talk about the weather has been elevated to an art in the Midwest. There’s a moment in Swanson’s essay “Notes from a Last Man” — which I love — that articulates this so beautifully:

“We needed a break from the Midwest. That was our public reason. Whenever friends or family members asked about our abrupt change of plans, we responded with stock answers, a litany of complaints — Wisconsin is too cold; we felt isolated in our insular college town; plus, we hadn’t taken a vacation in years. You have to understand that this kind of preemptive apology is necessary in the Midwest, where the dominant aesthetic is utilitarian, where suffering often takes on a grim inevitability. There, even the slightest indulgence will be interrogated if it’s left unexplained.”

When I read that section, and really the entire essay, I was just screaming “YES!” in my head. When, as Midwesterners we unmoor ourselves from winter and head to warmth, there’s an air of luxury to it. Time moves in a languid way. When I’ve gone to warmer climates during winter months, I often find myself fascinated by the people who live there all year round. What do they do, disconnected from the four seasons? How do they stay productive? How do they feel that they’ve earned the luxury that comes with warm weather? Because as Midwesterners, warmth must be earned. Often, during the summer months, I feel guilty when I haven’t “enjoyed” every single minute of sunshine, to the extent that I often feel exhausted in the summer, just hoping for rain so that I have an excuse to stay inside and do laundry. I’ve never recognized this as part of our culture: summer as an earned celebration of simply making it through winter.

Of course, as the essay goes on to explain, we’re often play-acting at luxury. The truth is that we feel an intense obligation to find meaning in absolutely everything that we do, and constant striving is ultimately not all that luxurious. Like the Spring Breakers in “Notes from a Last Man,” we fulfill our roles and party on the beach, obediently setting up our spring break tableaus of bikinis, beach towels, and beer. But are we having fun? Or have we missed the point? Does the noise of obligation — even in luxury — distract us from the growing dissent and division around us, making it more and more difficult to connect? By the time we look up, Trump Tower has been constructed and filled with devout followers yearning to Make America Great all over again.

EDC: “But are we having fun?” Whoa, that question! You’re on a roll here and I’m just going to butt in to say YES, and also, I love learning how your reading of this essay was informed by being from the Midwest, noticing yourself and your behaviors or customs as similar to the narrator’s or character’s mannerisms. Not being from here, those nuances aren’t always obvious to me, like elevating small talk about the weather to an art form. As I read your thoughts, I’m seeing all the things I’ve subconsciously adopted in order to fit in here. And I wonder how people who aren’t from the Midwest read this essay in particular, and the collection as a whole. How place informs both the writing and the reading. And, as you name here so eloquently, there’s a tendency to reduce many of these complex and nuanced essays down to an exploration of ‘division.’

ML: It’s so easy to focus on division, and to feel daunted by the connection needed to repair that division. I was recently talking with my dad about how frustrating it can be, especially as a business owner/manager, to make decisions that impact your company, your employees, your customers, and to always be met with criticism and derision. There will always be people who disagree with the choices that we make; who are upset that they don’t personally benefit more; who would choose to do things differently. This got me thinking about progress, and progressive political ideas in general. Self-interest is an enemy of progress. True progress, true equity, will require that sometimes I do not personally benefit from a decision or a policy.

“The Soldier and the Soil,” Swanson’s essay about an Iraqi war veteran who operates an organic farm that employs and serves other veterans, is the perfect example. After Swanson’s first visit to Peacefully Organic Produce, he remarks that “…the success of the farm depends, in large part, on the wider community — that its fate is bound up with the willingness of civilians to contend with the legacy of violence that has been enacted in their name.” In other words, in addition to saying “Thank you for your service” when I see a veteran at an airport, in the grocery store, at church, I need to purchase a CSA from an organization that is directly supporting veterans on every level, as they have supported me by sacrificing their lives, their physical and mental health, their relationships. Money spent is activism, just as Peacefully Organic Produce is activism. In order for real systemic change to be possible — whether it be systemic racism, systemic prejudice against people with disabilities and mental health issues, systemic socioeconomic disparities — this mindset must be applied and is ultimately the biggest challenge in creating systemic change.

I think part of the magic of Summerland is that Swanson writes these essays with progress in mind. He does not approach any of the subjects of his essays with pity or sympathy, but instead aims to create real community, investing in others, respecting and making room for their stories. This is a reallocation of his privilege as a white male writer, a progressive attitude genuinely investing in the wellbeing of others. Because is there a more rewarding thing than being told that you matter enough to have your story told? If there is any hope for connection, for repair, for progress, I’d bet my money on storytelling as a way forward.

Dotters Books is a women-owned and -operated independent bookstore in Eau Claire, WI. Find them on Instagram (@dottersbooks) and online at Order Lost in Summerland on their website, through your local indie bookseller, or

Swanson generously answered questions via e-mail for the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild in September 2020. Read the interview here, and if you’re into virtual author events, Swanson has four this month: