Book review of American Band: Music, Dreams, and Coming of Age in the Heartland, Kristen Laine
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Kristen Laine
American Band: Music, Dreams, and Coming of Age in the Heartland

Reviewed by Jeff Giles



ans of NBC’s “Friday Night Lights” (who, if the show’s continued ratings struggles are any indication, number frustratingly few) will find a number of sweetly familiar echoes in Kristen Laine’s “American Band: Music, Dreams, and Coming of Age in the Heartland,” a thoughtful, in-depth look at the way a single year in the life of a small-town high school marching band affects its members, parents, and advisors. Even if you looked at the members of your high school band as nerds – or, perhaps, even interrupted a halftime show by encouraging a football player in the stands to break a watermelon with his head – the book has plenty to offer.

Unfortunately, a number of readers may never experience the payoff; Laine’s early chapters are distractingly logy, and over the first half of the book, her focus is broad enough to feel scattered. Part of the problem is that her cast of characters is large, but what really bogs the front pages down is Laine’s continual attempts to frame the book’s events against the backdrop of her protagonists’ religious faith. It’s understandable – as you might expect, Elkhart, Indiana isn’t exactly a hotbed of secular thought – but at least initially, it feels like Laine is reaching, trying to make a major statement instead of simply letting her book unfold.

Ultimately, patient readers will be rewarded with a number of powerfully resonant closing chapters. What seems like reaching is really just Laine weaving an impressive number of threads; when she starts pulling them taut, “American Band” comes into focus, and only the most hard-hearted of readers will be able to avoid being swept up in its final act. Although space prevents Laine from spending an equal amount of time with all of her subjects, she was delivered a gift with Grant Longenbaugh, the senior trumpet player who acts as the book’s emotional cornerstone. Laine eases Longenbaugh into center stage, but ultimately, he’s simply too powerful a presence to avoid; the struggles he faces over the course of the book – both internal and external – would put many fictional characters to shame.

Longenbaugh and Laine’s other subjects aren’t fictional, however – at the time of the book’s writing, most of them weren’t even old enough to vote – and that lends the book much of its weight, but it also represents a calculated risk on the author’s part; these aren’t fictional constructs, they’re real people that Laine lived among and developed friendships with. That she recognized, and lived up to, her responsibility to them is the book’s greatest strength – and also, hopefully, a pleasant taste of things to come from Kristen Laine.

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