Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and
a Model for America’s Future by Pete Buttigieg
Liveright, 2019; 352 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser
In this political climate, Americans have heard all of the political rhetoric, and have seen a large number of not only Democratic presidential candidates in recent months, but have seen a large number of books about these candidates. Books about politicians that are written by the politician themselves or written with the help of another writer have been common for decades, and often read like an extended resume or social media post. But with South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s memoir, Shortest Way Home, Buttigieg seems determined from page one to capture a genuine narrative. Buttigieg reveals himself to be a devotee of literature and history, and his prose reflects that, but he is also determined to paint a picture for the reader of South Bend and the citizens that contribute to its culture, taking the focus off of himself and looking at the world around him, wherever he ends up. Buttigieg does address his accomplishments throughout the book as a good candidate would, but he lends most of the credit for those accomplishments to the people who surround him and what they have taught him either through shared experience or through consultation and advice.
Learning is a central theme throughout Buttigieg’s life, initiated by his parents (who were faculty at Notre Dame University) and continually fostered by his classmates in South Bend, his classmates at Harvard, citizens around him after 9/11, and his campaign and analytical work. Buttigieg also relates his learning from economic downturn in his hometown after the closing of Studebaker plant in South Bend in the 1960’s and how that closing shaped South Bend’s mindset throughout his life. Buttigieg opens the book with quick origin story and then climbs into the biggest challenge for any upper Midwestern mayor: snow. How South Bend residents talk about snow, and how local officials deal with snow, are the prose poem Buttigieg uses to bring the reader up close to decision-making and empathy for life in a “flyover” state. Buttigieg’s lessons aren’t just social and experiential, however; he is also insatiably curious and heavily academic, eager to study historical warfare during a few minutes off duty in Afghanistan or ready to learn Arabic even before the tragedy of 9/11. Buttigieg’s description of learning is often even more impressive and breathtaking than what he is learning; his account of finally playing the piano part of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with the South Bend orchestra for a public performance after months of daily practice puts the reader right on the piano bench with him (even though at one point his excruciating political schedule causes him to fall asleep during one practice session, while he is playing). His learning of Arabic while at Harvard holds the same fascinating challenge:
It was hard…At first the English-speaking learner struggles to grab hold of something, since there are almost no similarities between our words and theirs. But after a year or two of learning, the structure of the language begins to unfold and reveal itself—and unlike almost any other language, you can derive most words you don’t know by using the words you do know…It all works by analogy: you can take the same changes for “cooking” to get the word for “kitchen.”
Buttigieg admits to a strong inclination toward analytics in the book, and his pattern-sorting is evident in his description of learning. But he also strives to find the humanity in the spaces that pure data cannot supply; recognizing that the learner is striving “to grab hold of” something to know of Arabic or in Gershwin’s music, Buttigieg recognizes and moves into the empathy needed to administer to humanity, to his constituents. When he recognizes that his love of analytics can take him only so far, he moves from lucrative management consulting to local public service, where he can apply data for the sake of efficiency, but strives to keep his humanity skills sharp with practicing personal vulnerability, aforementioned empathy, and the importance symbolism plays for his constituents.