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By the Iowa Sea

A Memoir

About The Book

This vivid memoir about the heartbreaks and ecstasies of marriage, fatherhood, and small-town Midwestern life is “so raw and true you’ll gasp” (O, The Oprah Magazine).

Heralding the arrival of an original American voice, By the Iowa Sea is a wrenching, unsentimental account of the heartbreaks and ecstasies of marriage, fatherhood, and small-town Midwestern life.

After his first cross-country motorcycle trip, Joe Blair believed he had discovered his calling: he would travel; he would never cave in to convention; he would never settle down. Fifteen years later, he finds himself living in Iowa, working as an air-conditioning repairman and spending his free time cleaning gutters, taxiing his children, and contemplating marital infidelity. When the Iowa River floods, transforming the familiar streets of his small town into a terrible and beautiful sea, Joe begins to question the path that led him to this place.

Exquisitely observed and lyrically recounted, this is a compelling and often humorous account of an ordinary man’s struggle to live an extraordinary life.


By the Iowa Sea
IT BEGINS WITH RAIN. An innocent enough thing. Rain and rain and rain. Day after day of it. Through February and March and April and May. Forcing us to seek out shelters that will soon, in some cases, be transformed into pontoon boats. While the rain beats down on the roofs of Iowa City and Cedar Rapids and Marengo and Oxford Junction like bouncing hammers, the unstoppable thing is happening. The rivers rise up out of their banks, lifting our neat little split-entry lives from their foundations, tearing away electrical hookups and gas hookups and phone lines, bringing us to a place where there are no riverbanks and no street names and nothing else that resembles a city. The rivers will become oceans. And Deb and I will become not lost in the oceans but a part of them: suddenly vast. Subordinate to none. Scooping and hungry.

The wind comes unevenly in cold down-rushes and everyone at the Coral Ridge Mall knows that something unusual is about to happen. If the raindrops were chickens or pancakes, I don’t think we would be surprised. Because anything is possible. The small trees outside Barnes & Noble are showing the undersides of their leaves, their branches confused as to which way to go, pushing downward and then upward and then twisting clockwise. People are gathered in the very place the voice on the intercom tells us not to gather: in front of the large plate-glass windows. We can see everything from here. The crosswalk sign bending sideways. The racing clouds. But it isn’t enough for me. I want to be in the storm. I want to smell it and hear the wind and feel the first enormous raindrops hit my skin. I’m hungry for that.

I push through the heavy doors and wait outside the entrance. The storm excites me. It excites us all. Even though we have worried expressions on our faces, we don’t move from the windows. Because we want the change to come. We all want it. We are on our phones to wives or husbands or children. “Are you in the basement?” “Stay inside!” “Stay away from the windows!” These are the things we say. The sky looks the way ocean waves must look from the bottom of the sea. We are starfish looking up at the waves. And it intrigues us that there is such power in the world. Power enough to twist trees like corkscrews. To rip us all up by the roots.

A blast of wind staggers me. I catch myself from falling by grabbing the crosswalk sign, itself less than stable, oscillating wildly on its channeled steel post. One drop, the size of my hand, in the middle of the crosswalk. Another drop somewhere on the sidewalk. Then hundreds of drops all at once. Then thousands. Falling hard. Drawn to the ground as if by magnetic force. I step back beneath the entrance, afraid. The hunched figure of a woman rushes through one of the double doors clutching a paper bag to her chest and holding one hand over her head, as if to keep her wig on. “Smells like rain!” she shouts over the sound of the mad charge of water from the sky as she bustles past me into the storm. I smile. I take a deep breath. And then I laugh. Because she’s right. It does smell like rain.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for By the Iowa Sea includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Joe Blair. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


In a candid memoir about his struggle to be a loving husband and father, Joe Blair lays bare his dreams and the stuff they’re made of.  A member of the plumber and pipefitter union who also earned a masters in nonfiction writing at the University of Iowa, Joe documents his home struggles—a failing marriage, a special needs child, a natural disaster, and a yearning for something new—in his debut memoir, By the Iowa Sea. With a genuine narrative voice and an unflinching honesty, Blair documents his journey towards living an authentic life, and the challenges great and small he faces along the way.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1.  Does a place define a family?  Discuss the ways in which Joe and Deb give weight to the notion of “home.”  Consider their first house in Iowa,their youthful motorcycle trip across the US, and their ultimate move back to Massachusetts.

2.  Why do you think Joe was attracted to Pamela?  What about her differs from Deb? Do Joe and Pamela just connect over their shared love of writing, or was there something deeper about her being a change from Deb and life at home with the kids?  Also, what do you think motivates Joe giving up his affair and attempting to reconcile with Deb?

3.  How does the significance of the flood change Joe’s perspective?  Do you think he finds some personal catharsis in seeing solid places wash away?  Why is he so attracted to the deteriorated houses on the beaches of Plum Island?

4.  Joe contemplates the notion that all things will be “washed away by time.”  Do you agree?  Is there permanence to notions of love, family, or home?  How has Joe’s view on this changed by the memoir’s end?

5.  How does the backdrop of the flooding Iowa River affect the smaller disasters in Joe’s life?  Discuss how this force of nature plays into Joe’s troubles in Iowa.  Does the flood also help him somehow?

6.  On page 235, Joe writes: “Love can be an extraordinary patience. Love can also be an extraordinary impatience.” What do you think Joe means by this? Do you think love can truly be defined as both?

7.  Consider Michael’s autism and the way it affects Joe’s life and marriage. Reflect on Joe’s descriptions of being both awed frustrated by his son. How did you react to Joe’s struggle with raising Michael? Do you understand his actions and feelings? Why or why not? Do you think Michael’s return to playing with the belt in Massachusetts nullify Deb’s assessment that he’s done better since the move?

8.  In reference to Isaac Newton’s supposed celibacy, Joe suggests that “what a man refrains from defines him perhaps more completely than what he accomplishes.”  Do you agree?  From what has Joe refrained, and what has he accomplished?

9.  Discuss the games Joe plays with his children:  the blinking game with Michael, the disintegrating man with William and Sam, the imaginary personas he, Deb, and the kids take on in the woods. How do these small moments of play reflect on Joe’s role as a father? What do these games mean to him?

10.  What do you foresee being Joe’s greatest challenges in Massachusetts?

11.  Consider the clarity Joe experiences when sandbagging.  What is it about a simple, redundant process that leads to such self-understanding?  How can this notion be applied to his family life?

12.  In the same vein, was all that work for naught?  As the river waters spread through town, was the communal process of sandbagging a failure?  Is there a point to such simple actions when disaster strikes regardless?  How do you justify catastrophe even when you’ve done all you can to avoid it?

13.  Is it the individual moments or the final outcome that defines a life? Explain.

Enhance Your Book Club

1.  Make a list of the romantic notions you maintained as a child.  How did those ideas change as you grew up?  Did your life turn out more or less as you planned?  Discuss any disasters that might have forced you to change course or reevaluate everything you’d worked for.  What are the key moments of your life and love?

2.  Read another memoir, such as Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, Alex Lemon’s Happy, Abby Sher’s Amen, Amen, Amen, or Robin Romm’s The Mercy Papers. Compare and contrast the voice from one memoir to the next.  Do they all contain the same amount of honesty and insight?  Does a disaster—natural or otherwise—always inform a life and the reflection thereof?

3.  Devise a game similar to the ones Joe plays with his kids to play with your book club members. Is there utility in pretending?  Are the silly moments created just as important as the ones with more weight? 

4.  Visit someplace new, a good distance from your home.  Can you see yourself relocating to this locale?  List and discuss the ways in which a move might change your life as it stands today.  Is your city, your street, your house an integral part of your identity?  Discuss with your book club.

About The Author

Photograph by William Jennings

Joe Blair is a pipefitter who lives in Coralville, Iowa, with his wife and four children. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Iowa Review.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (March 5, 2013)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451636062

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Raves and Reviews

A memoirist with a poet’s soul, [Blair] takes what is arguably the most mercilessly exploited natural resource in all of literature and replenishes it. Blair has an autistic son, Michael…and it is their love story that lends the tempest... and this memoir its observational virtuosity.”

– New York Times Book Review

“Some memoirs you read for the feelings they inspire, and some you read to find out how in the heck they’ll turn out. By the Iowa Sea manages to do both with an understanding of so-called ordinary life so raw and true you’ll gasp, and a situation so pressing you’ll tear through the pages. The writer’s unflinching reflection about himself and his choices make this book.”


"A beautifully written story about marriage, responsibility and caring for an autistic child."

– Bookpage

"Engrossing, thoughtful, startlingly honest, and, ultimately, hopeful."

– Iowa Press Citizen

"Blair put away his motorcycle and his dreams to do manual labor while supporting four children, one of whom is autistic. Rekindling a sense of purpose took something big: a terrible flood. Not a whiny work; fresh, plain-spoken, and down to earth. Definitely try."
--Library Journal

“A devastating flood provides the backdrop for Joe Blair's moving memoir about crisis and change. If you want to understand how a good man can resolve the conflict between his youthful dreams and his adult sense of duty, read this book. His honesty about the real challenges of marriage and parenting is startling in the best sense, and shot through with refreshing humor.”

--Julie Metz, author of The New York Times bestselling memoir, Perfection

“Joe Blair's passion and courage are evident on each page of By the Iowa Sea. He is among those rare writers brave enough to risk everything for his work and the result is this hypnotic, electrifying book.”

--Alexander Maksik, author of You Deserve Nothing

“Blair’s thoughtful memoir displays the strengths and resilience of committed lovers in a tumultuous relationship.”
--Publishers Weekly

“Joe Blair’s voice is uncommonly perceptive, startlingly honest, and powerfully moving. This is eloquence born of pain, sharpened by humor, and burnished, finally, by understanding and redemption.”
--Ethan Canin, author of Emperor of the Air and America, America

“By the Iowa Sea is a sometimes angry, often startling, and always riveting journey through infidelity, drinking, storms, work, beauty, and the simultaneous frustration and sublimity of raising a disabled child. Blair's writing is vivid, his subjects are heartbreaking, and his ending is flat-out gorgeous.”
--Anthony Doerr, author of Memory Wall

"Joe Blair portrays family life and his own emotional life with tremendous courage and a searing honesty. I admired the prose and the story as I read. I finished the book admiring the man.”
--Chris Offutt, author of The Same River Twice

“An intimate, startling memoir that honors and elevates our quotidian existence. With his contagious curiosity as to what drives him and what holds him back, Blair writes fearlessly and beautifully about the family he loves and also betrays, the people he treasures and plots to escape from. By The Iowa Sea is funny and unsettling, painful and rock and roll romantic, and it has the invigorating ring of truth on every page.”
--Scott Spencer, author of Endless Love and Man in the Woods

“Joe Blair writes with uncommon openness and pain about the pleasures and difficulties of marriage. He also conjures the beauty of the Iowa landscape--even under water. By the Iowa Sea includes one of the most touchingly funny sex scenes--or should I say--non-sex scenes I’ve read. I am sure women and men will respond to his voice.”

--Anne Taylor Fleming, author of Marriage: A Duet and As If Love Were Enough

"Eloquently gritty"

– Elle Magaizne

"[A] powerfully moving and redemptive account of... reckoning with disasters both natural and personal...[that] hits something close to the divine."

– Shelf Awareness

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