It’s been beautiful lately in eastern Nebraska–unseasonably warm, breezy, even spring-like. One of my favorite things to do on days like this is plant myself near a sunny window and settle down with a good book. Obviously, my favorite topic is usually Nebraska, and I’ve done a lot of reading recently! You are probably already familiar with some great Nebraska authors, like Willa Cather, or Mari Sandoz. I love them, too, but today I want to delve into three titles that are a little more off the beaten path. Happy reading, Wanderers!
I love Chadron, Nebraska. Really, it’s one of my favorite towns. Whenever I’m there, I stay at the Olde Main Street Inn, a delightful Bed and Breakfast/Cafe that also serves as a gathering place from some of the town’s most interesting characters. One of those characters, Poe Ballantine, is also the author of a disturbing and thoughtful memoir, Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere (Hawthorne Books), parts of which are even set in my favorite B&B. The memoir tells a little of Balantine’s personal story–how he got to Chadron, how he met his wife, his own reflections on parenting an autistic child–but also delves into the mystery surrounding the tragic fate of Chadron State math professor, Steven Haataja, whose suspicious 2006 death (was it suicide? Murder?) rocked the small western Nebraska town. Ballantine is darkly funny, but also a sensitive cultural critic. This beautiful book is at once disturbing and inspiring, and I guarantee that after you read it, you’ll want to go poke around Chadron and see what you can find! (The memoir was also recently made into a feature-lenght independent documentary. You can watch the trailer here).
I’ve never been a huge fan of westerns. I really have no defense for that statement, other than to say that I simply haven’t had a whole lot of exposure to them. But when I found out that a recent movie, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Hillary Swank, was set in Nebraska and based on a novel, I ran right out and picked it up! The Homesman (Simon & Schuster), by Glendon Swarthout, is sometimes called “The Feminist Western.” It delves right into one of the great hardships (and sometimes untold stories) of life on the plains during the homesteading days–that is, the particular toll that such a dangerous, lonely, life often took on women. When several pioneer women in a small Nebraska community go insane over the course of a particularly difficult winter, it falls to a brave “spinster” homesteader (she’s 31…) to escort them back east, where they will eventually be reunited with their families. The heroine partners with a rough-around-the edges outlaw, eager to make a buck and not die by vigilante justice, and together they take the women on a harsh overland journey to Iowa. Swarthout, an award-winning western novelist, was compelled to tell this important story in part due to his wife’s insistence, and together they spent a lot of time in Nebraska, researching the history of pioneer women. Guys, this book is tragic. But it’s also beautifully written and, I would say, rather important. Check it out!
Speaking of tragic and important, perhaps the most challenging and convicting book that I’ve ever read about Nebraska is, The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder, by Stew Magnuson (Plains Histories). This non-fiction narrative is basically one long braided essay, which alternates between the story of Raymond Yellow Thunder, an Oglala Lakota man who was killed in Gordon, Nebraska, in 1972, and the history of the complicated relationship between Nebraska border towns and the Pine Ridge Reservation. Yellow Thunder’s death as a result of injuries he sustained in a racially-motivated attack became a rallying point for the nascent American Indian Movement. The story, of course, is much older than that, spanning all the way back to the first white “settlers” in Nebraska and the Dakotas. The relationships between both individuals and communities in Sheridan County, Nebraska, and Pine Ridge are complex, deeply connected, and almost inextricable from one another. Magnuson does a masterful job of slowly and carefully telling the stories of both people and events, delving deep into the past in hopes of better understanding the present. This is an unsettling read, but worth the discomfort. I learned so much about Nebraska from this well-researched and sharp book, and am left with a better understanding of how racism, violence, alcoholism, and misunderstanding can affect communities for generations. (Spoiler alert: The Episcopal Church doesn’t come off as looking to good in this book. A helpful reminder for us all).