About 140 miles southwest of the Quad-Cities, in the small town of Eldon, Iowa, stands the 1880s white clapboard house that artist Grant Wood used in the background of his famous painting, “American Gothic.”
It’s a small house that may never have caught Wood’s attention except for the incongruously fancy window in the upper half-story, possibly purchased from a Sears catalog.
The window has become an icon — it’s used on the “Welcome to Eldon” banners along the town’s main street — and it’s outlined in red concrete in front of the house, marking the spot where the site’s numerous visitors stand to get their picture taken.
Now there’s a new attraction in the house: its occupant, Beth M. Howard.
Howard, 50, is a slip of a woman who wrote a book published this spring by Harlequin that is striking a chord with readers across the nation.
“Making Piece: a memoir of love, loss, and pie” chronicles the deep, complicated grief Howard was plunged into at the sudden death of her husband three years ago and how she worked — and continues to work — her way through it.
Pie plays a major part in her story and becomes a metaphor for sharing, healing and community.
She’s been written up in newspapers across Iowa — the Des Moines Register dubbed her “America’s Pie Lady” — and featured in such national publications as USA Today, Better Homes & Gardens, Country Living, Real Simple and on CBS-TV’s “This Morning” show.
Her family lived in Davenport from the time she was 12 years old until she graduated from Assumption High School, but she’s spent most of her adult life on the U.S. coasts or overseas. She happened upon the American Gothic house two years ago and has been renting it for $250 per month (plus utilities) from the State Historical Society of Iowa, adding another appealing facet to her story.
With an eye toward good photos, she greets two Quad-City Times visitors to her home wearing blue bib overalls and a red and white blouse, but she worries aloud that she looks tired.
It’s been a nonstop summer, with interviews, speaking engagements, blogging and selling “the world needs more pie”
T-shirts. Two weeks ago, she flew to Los Angeles for “Marie!” a daily TV talk show hosted by Marie Osmond on cable’s Hallmark Channel, and before that, she hosted a crew from the cable History channel.
Plus, every weekend, there’s her pie stand, with some 100 pies to make and sell.
She also tries to respond to mail from readers, but writing is her real career.
“The book is helping people,” she said, sitting at her kitchen table, a welcome breeze blowing through the screen door.
“It helps people who have experienced grief or loss as well as those who haven’t,” she said. “My story helps them appreciate what they’ve got. They might look at their husband and say, ‘Look what I’ve got.’ Life is short and not to be taken for granted.”
Howard also teaches classes on how to make pie, and she will be in Bettendorf on Monday, Sept. 10, for a pie workshop at the Hy-Vee Food Store and to give a presentation at the public library.
Admission to both events is free and part of first-year East West Riverfest celebration as well as an ongoing program sponsored by the Bettendorf Public Library and River Action Inc. called “Building Common Ground: Discussions of Community, Civility and Compassion.”
Howard’s parents moved to Davenport from Ottumwa when she was a pre-teen. Her dad, Tom, was a dentist, and her mom, Marie, was the family life director for the Diocese of Davenport. They lived in McClellan Heights.
By the time Howard got to high school, she was restless. She started on the cheerleading, student council and drama path, but the uniforms and the rules began to chafe. She graduated early and took off for an outdoor leadership school, a 17-year-old spending three months in the wilderness of Utah, Wyoming and Montana.
“I went 28 days without a shower,” she recalls.
From there, her life pinballed. She worked as a Web producer in San Francisco. She started a company that imported coffee from Kenya. She freelanced for Microsoft Corp. And she met Marcus, the love of her life, following him to Germany, Mexico and Portland, Ore.
She also learned to make pie and, for a time, baked at a gourmet café in Malibu that sold to the likes of Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg.
Howard was between jobs when her husband died of a ruptured aorta, and as she struggled to survive, hour by hour, day by day, a filmmaker friend of a friend (this is how Howard’s life goes) suggested they make a documentary on pie that they might pitch to a network. Thus began a several-months odyssey in an RV, interviewing pie bakers and making pie.
Although the documentary has never been picked up for telecast, Howard turned her experiences into a book, writing out her grief and, in the process, revealing herself.
She uses the f-word twice, and toward the end of the book she describes a two-night stand while she was in Orlando for the National Pie Championships.
Wasn’t she nervous about sharing this?
“Not really,” she says. “There’s no point in feeling shame. I needed that (the encounter) to break the spell. Everyone has their own experiences.”
After the documentary work ended, she traveled to the Iowa State Fair in 2010 to judge pies with the intention of moving to Los Angeles after that.
Instead, she continued from Des Moines to Ottumwa. She visited her former home and the town café and figured she would never be back.
But as she was driving along U.S. 34, she came upon a brown national monument sign proclaiming “American Gothic House, 6 miles.”
Instantly, she wanted to see the house. And while she was there, she learned that the building was for rent.
She decided to stay. Although most people come to Eldon to see the American Gothic House, the opportunity to buy pies ($20 each) on weekends is “icing on the cake,” said Holly Berg, the director of the American Gothic House Center.
Howard’s life is full of so many chance turns and meetings, tangents and digressions — while moving forward all the time — that a reader is tempted to think she is making some of it up.
But, no, not only did all of these things happen — “they’re still happening,” she said.
Earlier this year, she was giving a talk in Cedar Rapids when she noticed a handsome man in the back. It turned out he was someone she had known from Davenport, and he’s become a new boyfriend.
As for the future, she may write another book — about spending a year in the American Gothic House — or travel the world teaching pie baking. For the next year, she’ll be in Eldon because she has signed another lease on the home and is committed to another year with 15 weekends of pies, from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
She feels an affinity with Grant Wood. His observation that “I had to go to France to appreciate Iowa” applies to her, too.
The house that caught his attention also caught hers.
And while “American Gothic” launched Wood’s career, it has brought new love and purpose to hers.
Sometimes, she wonders, “Is Grant Wood the one pulling all the strings?”