Music, Dreams, and Coming of Age in the Heartland
What people are saying about American Band

John F. Kennedy
Presidential Library

March 30, 2008

Boston, Massachusetts

On March 30, I accepted the L. L. Winship / PEN New England award for nonfiction for American Band. The awards ceremony, held annually at the imposing John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, is considered a herald of spring for literary New England. The event also honored Rishi Reddi and Ann Killough, Winship winners for fiction and poetry, and Joshua Ferris, who was awarded the Hemingway / PEN award for a distinguished first book of fiction. The Winship awards honor works set in New England or by writers from the region; it was especially surprising when the nonfiction judge selected an unabashedly Midwestern book for this New England award.

In her keynote speech, novelist Alice Hoffman honored Tillie Olsen, who had died two months earlier at age 94, and Grace Paley, who had died at age 84 the previous August, calling them “literary godmothers” to a generation of women writers, including Hoffman herself. Hoffman noted that Olsen’s non-fiction book Silences, “an analysis of the silences in a writer’s life, particularly in a woman writer’s life, ... was concerned with why women publish less frequently and why they receive so much less attention and so many fewer prizes than do their male counterparts.” At that point, Hoffman acknowledged the three Winship winners, all of us women, and said, to applause, “Thankfully, not today, this isn’t true today.”

Later, Hoffman quoted Paley: “Everyday life, kitchen life, children life had been handed down to me, my portion, the beginning of my big luck, though I didn’t know it.” “The big luck,” Hoffman continued, “is the ability to have compassion and empathy, to express the inner-workings of family-life and that is important and serious stuff.”

(Follow the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library link here or above and scroll down for a full transcript of the ceremony, including Hoffman’s speech.)

December 2007

by Jeff Giles

... 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.

Read the full review.


The Journal Gazette

Fort Wayne, Indiana

September 16, 2007

by Karen Francisco

Kristen Laine’s American Band could have been a marching band version of “Hoosiers.” It could have been a mean-spirited exposé of vapid teens absorbed by mindless competition, or a profile of Indiana as a rusting, rube-filled wasteland.

Instead, her story is an honest, often painful look at life in a community based solely on a school district consolidation. The Concord Marching Minutemen of Concord High School are the touchstone for all the community represents – the declining industrial base and rich musical history of neighboring Elkhart, an omnipresent evangelical influence, the plight and promise of a growing immigrant population and a sense of community that is uniquely Hoosier. ...

Marching band alumni and parents will be curious about the book and what it says about how they have devoted countless hours. But they should be warned: Marching band is only the backdrop for a much larger and true story. References to Dr. Beat, music captions and the RCA Dome’s airlock are one strand in the fabric of a story woven together with rich observations on racial tension, economic decline, northern Indiana geography and the profound effect of faith on today’s youth.

Likewise, those baffled by the marching band culture shouldn’t be driven away. There’s enough detail about its unusual mix of music and money, greasepaint and gridiron to inform outsiders, but not so much that it intrudes on a fascinating story of a talented educator, a gifted and thoughtful teenager and the uncontrollable forces of love, life and death.

Laine’s story is a compelling read. It will hold special appeal for Hoosiers and marching band fans, but they will find that it lingers much longer than even the deepest notes sounded on Indiana football fields this fall.


Wall Street Journal

September 9, 2007

by Kent Owen

For generations, almost any high-school student in America who played in a marching band or a wind ensemble knew that there was a place in Indiana called Elkhart. The label on thousands of instrument cases told them so, for Elkhart was home to the Conn Co. (later Conn-Selmer and now a part of Steinway), the maker of high-quality brass instruments and woodwinds. That brilliant trumpet riff at halftime or that seductive clarinet solo at the annual spring concert was merely giving voice to Conn’s industrial handiwork.

In American Band, Kristen Laine goes to the heart of Conn territory–Elkhart County, Ind.–and spends a school year with the Concord High School Marching Minutemen. Working in the tradition of embedded sociologists such as Robert and Helen Merrell Lynd of Middletown fame, Ms. Laine shows how Concord, a consolidated school system just south of Elkhart, has over the decades sustained a band and music program trained to excellence of performance and superior competitiveness. American Band is a multilayered account of nearly novel-like richness. It records the textures of teaching and learning in a rare, unsentimental tone.

Ms. Laine’s chronicle of the school year possesses an almost musical structure, counterpointing the themes of the band’s life as a well-drilled organization–demanding practices, stressful contests–against the personal concerns of those who form it. At a gathering of band members and their families, for instance, the “most admired” member of the Concord marching band begins to talk openly about his depression, confessing to a struggle that few around him had suspected. In the course of the year, Ms. Laine observes other such moments, as adolescents and adults alike feel strain, reach out, edge back, fall short, endure adversity and, over time, gain confidence and improve themselves in remarkable ways. That the means of achieving this advancement should be a high-school marching band comes as a kind of revelation.

This being Elkhart County–with its Amish settlements,Mennonite churches and evangelicals–the young people at Concord are generally brought up to regard religion earnestly and to make it the center of their lives. Here faith and belief are the core of both private and civic life, so that concerns about salvation, redemption, sin and grace are ever present.

Ms. Laine sees this religious intensity close-up. “The feeling among the kids from Concord was that Satan was everywhere,” she writes. “You could hear it when they talked to one another, and it came out in the youth groups. If God was the hard taskmaster who assigned you a lifelong research project and expected you to finish it, Satan was the tempter who never stopped looking for ways to pull you from your task. Of the two forces, Satan could seem much more present than God. Every day was a battle for your soul.” To her credit, Ms Laine treats her subjects gently, letting them speak candidly of their spiritual condition–including their doubts and fears–but not judging them.

For all the “heartland” clichés that Elkhart County might seem to confirm, the forces of change are never far away. ...


Chicago Tribune

September 8, 2007

by Kerry Luft

Kristen Laine’s American Band is Friday Night Lights for the geek set, the story of a championship high school marching band from Elkhart, Ind., as it seeks to win another state title. Along the way it touches on themes playing out across the Midwest, from an influx of Hispanic immigrants to the departure of jobs to foreign lands. ...

There is a driving narrative to the story–the band’s struggle to prepare for the state finals in Indianapolis, even as its legendary director is planning to leave the school at year’s end–but the richest parts of the book have to do with the individual students. ...

[Grant Longenbaugh is] one of the more interesting high schoolers in recent non-fiction: a brilliant student, a fine trumpet player whose success is due more to hard work than talent, a gentle upperclassman who leads by example and a devout Christian. He’s almost a cliche, too good to be true.

Yet he is far more complex than that, and Laine skillfully reveals more and more layers of his personality–the boy who won’t miss church and can’t figure out whether Jesus wants him to have a girlfriend, and the self-doubting teenager who seems to have everything going for him but struggles with depression. Because Laine spends so much time with Grant–and he is such a rich subject–the reader comes to know him, while other seemingly major players in the book fade.

At the end of the book Grant confronts two tragedies that make the everyday drama of high school classes and band competitions seem trivial, and Laine has portrayed him so well and so sympathetically that a reader can’t help but weep for him.

He’s the sort of wonderful kid you wish you knew, so you could hug him and say, “Hey–it’s going to be OK, and you will be too.”

Florida Sun-Sentinel

September 2, 2007

by Jesse Leavenworth

.... Read the book, and when you hear a marching band lift the crowd at a parade or halftime performance, consider it a product of extraordinary work, dedication and ultimately, character.

Read the full review.


Chicago Sun-Times
Go ahead, judge a
book by its cover

August 11, 2007

by Teresa Bundasi

Chicago Sun-Times books editor Teresa Bundasi selected American Band to launch the newspaper’s book blog, The Book Room, partly because she was drawn to the photo on the book’s cover. She also wrote:

This book may never hit the best seller lists but I do think it carries some appeal beyond Midwestern band geeks like myself. It took me back to a place that apparently still exists; a place where there are high school kids out there less concerned with fashion, popularity and pop culture and more concerned with the big picture of their lives. The intimate portrayals and passion of these high school kids that Laine is able to convey speaks to her own passion and dedication to the writing.

Visit The Book Room


The Seattle Times

American Band
captures the heart”

August 10, 2007

by Curt Schleier

ìA season in the life ofî books ó about sports teams, symphony orchestras, even elementary-school classrooms ó are a dime a dozen. Rarely, if ever, has one of these books encapsulated anything larger than the few months the author spends with her or her subjects. But Kristen Laineís American Band is about much more than a season in the life of the Concord High School (of Elkhart, Ind.) Marching Minutemen. It is also the story of America... Laine has done a remarkable job of journalism. Iíve read a couple of dozen books in this genre, and I canít remember one that was so filled with intimate details....

Read the full review, also published in the Grand Rapids Press and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel



August 5, 2007

"Parade Pick"

Author Kristen Laine chronicles a year in the life of the Concord High marching band, from the first sweaty week of camp through the late-night practice sessions and furtive strategy meetings to the last heart-poounding moments of the Indiana state finals, where the seniors must defend their title. Along the way, the students struggle under the weight of tubas and polyester uniforms, as well as the demands of their friends, families and faith.


Entertainment Weekly

August 3, 2007

by Kerrie Mitchell

Indiana’s Concord Community High has a long tradition of elite marching bands, so of course the school’s Marching Minutemen hoped to repeat as state champions in 2004. In this moving look at their season, Laine pays attention to detail–she even marches in a parade at one point. She’s helped by some vivid personalities, like the band director who inspires and stifles his students and the trumpeter who struggles with his evangelical faith. What begins as a dizzying explanation of field drills and questionable music choices (picture white-bread Midwestern kids drumming African beats on a djembe) deepens into a rich account of growing up in the Bible belt.



August 1, 2007

by Rita Kohn

Auspiciously appearing simultaneously with the final Harry Potter, this is a must-read, sterling study presented as narrative nonfiction, and every bit as compelling and emotion-grabbing as is the British-born series. The story weaves in and out of a handful of lives in particular and dozens of others peripherally to showcase the summer and fall experiences of the 2004 Concord Minuteman Band. Band director Max Jones, whose expectations and standards are high, believes music, and marching band in particular, has the power to transform lives. He has developed a method whereby upperclassmen teach younger students the fundamentals of playing and marching. The winning strategy begins with summer band camp, eases into State Fair and culminates at the ISSMA state finals at the RCA Dome, after which hundreds of music students audition for a chair in one of the four sitting bands and life stops revolving around ìthe show.î Laine immersed herself into the on-site research that shapes this book. She had no way of knowing how trauma-filled it would become. An outstanding journalist, Laine let the book become itself. Itís revelatory as a tract on Evangelical Christianity, perfectionism, personal responsibility, trying your hardest and a small town affected by plant closings and influxes of new residents ó some recent immigrants. Ultimately, youíll care as much ó maybe more ó about Grant Longenbaugh as you do Harry Potter.


Paste magazine

August 2007

by Elissa Elliott
Four-star review

ìRivetingî may not be the first word that comes to mind when you consider high-school marching bands, but it nicely describes Kristen Laineís creative nonfiction debut American Band.

Laine, a former band member, moved her family to Elkhart County, Indianaóa place where schools are built around marching bands, not football teamsóso she could study the influences, domestic and public, that made the Concord Marching Minutemen state marching-band champions.

With great lyricism and precision, Laine takes us backstage, into the homes and churches and hearts of a handful of kidsóthe perfectionist trumpet player, the tentative clarinet player, the wannabe West Point drumline captain, the torn flautist and the lackadaisical saxophone playeróand involves us in their complex hopes and longings, illuminating how little we know about the mysterious subterranean life of teens, even though weíve all been there.


Library Journal

July 17, 2007

by Carol Binkowski

This excellent book is not only for those who are familiar with the rigors of high school marching bands but also for anyone who enjoys a touching story superbly told.

Advance praise for American Band

“Kristen Laine went back to the heartland–to the America that so many of us fly over without blinking an eye–and uncovered . . . a world where salvation and ambition and teenage angst collide in strange ways no outsider could ever understand, unless you read American Band.”

–Michael Bamberger, author of Wonderland: A Year in the Life of an American High School

American Band has everything going for it, from tempo to heart to the grand bittersweet finale. What a gift for readers: a pitch-perfect tribute to kids and song and community.”

–Madeleine Blais, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle

“As a spats-hating, apathetic, marching-band clarinetist in high school, I didn’t recognize the driven and talented Concord High musicians who train harder than the football players at whose games they perform. But American Band is much more than the story of a season in the life of the most fanatical practitioners of this uniquely American ritual. Kristen Laine has produced a captivating portrait of what it’s like to be a teenager in middle America in the first part of the twenty-first century.”

–Stefan Fatsis, author of Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players

“Football isn’t the only thing happening underneath those Friday night lights. American Band leads us through the championship season of Elkhart, Indiana’s Marching Minutemen. But most importantly, author Kristen Laine shows that in the heart of the heart of the country, so-called quaint notions like ‘community’ and ‘personal excellence’ are alive and kicking.”

–Cathy Day, author of The Circus in Winter

“Through the graceful narration of Kristen Laine, a season of a high school band becomes the provocative story of young men and women grappling with issues of friendships, ambition, and spirituality. American Band makes us care us care deeply about the parents, kids, and teachers who come together to create a sense of community in these fast-changing times.”

–David L. Marcus, author of What It Takes to Pull Me Through: Why Teenagers Get in Trouble, and How Four of Them Got Out

American Band is a compelling story of young people finding their voices, their callings, and their rhythm. In Kristen Laine’s hands, the unfolding highs and lows of a group of high school musicians becomes an unlikely but utterly convincing venue for relating universal experiences: learning to love, learning from loss, struggling with faith. . . in other words, growing up. With remarkable empathy and skillful prose, Laine not only grants access to the lives of the teenagers whose stories she so poignantly tells, she actually makes the reader nostalgic for high school, for that time when we dreamed big dreams and loved our friends as if the music of life depended on them.”

–Peter Manseau, author of Vows:  The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son

“A triumph! American Band is an incisive portrait of life and coming of age in our ‘heartland’–a place so many of us feel free to ridicule and analyze, but so rarely take the time to truly comprehend. Kristen Laine pushes right through the stereotypes about ‘red states,’ ‘evangelicals,’ and the nature of life in the middle of our nation. American Band, is, in one sense, a well-paced page-turner in the great tradition of ‘competition’ narratives. But it is also much more. Kristen Laine has blessed us with a deeply serious, life-affirming book whose quiet insight and wisdom will stay with the reader many years after those pages have been turned….”

–Susan Eaton, author of The Children in Room E-4: American Education on Trial

“American Band describes a Midwestern world of corn fields and trombones in which a group of young people learn to strike up the music. The richness of the book is in the use a modern community–familiar with unemployment, drugs, teen obesity, and sudden death–makes of its marching band legacy. Young men and women grab hold of their shining instruments and learn that–even in life’s saddest moments–it may be possible to pull together and unleash “When the Saints Go Marching In” until listeners don’t know whether to weep or dance.”

–Melissa Fay Greene, author of There Is No Me Without You and Praying for Sheetrock