Kansas. I grew up on the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. Not just The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (the original from 1900), but all 14 books written by Baum, with Ozma, Rinkitink, Tik-Tok, Glinda, and all the rest. Glinda of Oz, Baum’s 14th installment, was published posthumously in 1920. Even as a child I was skeptical about so-called “Oz books” written by other authors, so I never read any of the books by Ruth Plumly Thompson (and others, including John R. Neill, who illustrated Baum’s and Thompson’s Oz books and then wrote several of his own).
I also grew up watching the film version of The Wizard of Oz (1939), and I loved the film’s imagery of black-and-white (gray) Kansas, switching to full Technicolor Oz. This film is so iconic in American pop culture that I think it is probably one of the first things that comes to mind for almost any American when they think of Kansas. “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
However, as a girl named Laura, growing up in the 1970s, I also read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, including Little House on the Prairie (1935), which sees the family head to Kansas Territory. These books were originally published mainly in the 1930s but were reissued in the 1970s with the rise of the Little House on the Prairie TV show with Michael Landon. Interestingly, however, I hated the TV show and refused to watch it–they changed too many things (most notably the fact that the family never really settled in one place for very long). Not that things weren’t changed in The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps it had to do with the fact that the Little House books were “real” whereas Oz was not. (The books are usually classified as historical fiction or fictionalized biography.) To this day the only good thing I can really say about the show is that Michael Landon was a wonderful choice for Pa.
So… Kansas… With all these preconceptions, what to read?
One of the first places I check when looking at books for a new state is the Other Blogger’s site if she has finished that state. In general, I try not to read the same books she has, and I don’t re-read books I’ve read in the past. However, often, if I put those books into Goodreads I can come up with a list that will lead me to other books that might work. I was really interested in a couple of the books Andrea picked for Kansas, so at first I thought I would add them to my reading list as well, but I’ve come up with a number of others that sound like good candidates. So, here we go:
Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige (2014) – is my (quirky) Young Adult pick as homage to Oz. The premise is just too good to pass up. Amy Gumm lives in a trailer park in modern Kansas, and is recruited to help Oz get rid of Dorothy who came back to Oz and became a totalitarian dictator. This may be a bust in a similar way to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, where it’s a fun, quirky book that really doesn’t fit my challenge of helping me “figure out” Kansas, but we’ll see. Also, this is the first in a series, so we’ll need to be prepared for this not to be a stand-alone. (LOL – I’ve been reading the Illuminae Files and noticed that in Obsidio (the final book in the series), one of the fighter pilots taken out by the Churchill is Danielle “Dorothy” Paige!)
Letters Never Sent by Sandra Moran (2013) – “In 1997, Katherine’s daughter, Joan, travels to Lawrence, Kansas, to clean out her estranged mother’s house. Hidden away in an old suitcase, she finds a wooden box containing trinkets and a packet of sealed letters to a person identified only by a first initial.” (Excerpt from Goodreads.) At least part of this story takes place in Chicago, so we’ll have to see whether this is one for Kansas or not, but I’m interested in the story.
The Virgin of Small Plains by Nancy Pickard – Andrea read The Scent of Rain and Lightning, also by Nancy Pickard, and, like Andrea, I immediately loved that title and wanted to read it for Kansas. But while I was mulling it over, I stumbled across The Virgin of Small Plains and decided to give this one a try instead. Andrea’s review, as well as others, indicates that the author does a good job with lovely setting descriptions.
First Dawn by Judith McCoy Miller (2005) – I was also excited about Andrea’s Langston Hughes pick Not Without Laughter, and I still want to read it eventually, but for now, I’m adding this one instead, about Nicodemus, Kansas, a community settled by freed slaves after the Civil War. (Also, I may pick up a copy of Wagon Wheels by Barbara Brenner, which is an I Can Read book (for very young readers) that also deals with black pioneers to Nicodemus, Kansas, to share with my son.) Note: Judith Miller has lived in Kansas for many years and writes historical fiction, apparently with a definite Christian slant. This, depending on how heavy-handed it is, may be a real turn-off for me–I’ll update when I have a better feel for it.
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool (2010) – a Newberry Award winner, and my (other) pick for young readers for Kansas. Some of the reviews I read described it as a “typical” or “predictable” or “safe” choice for the Newberry Medal, so it may not be the best, but even the reviews that weren’t totally impressed seemed to indicate that it gives a good sense of place. The main character, Abilene, has been sent to live with family friends in her father’s childhood hometown of Manifest, Kansas (based on Frontenac in southeastern Kansas). Mysteries about her father’s background and mementos that lead her on a spy hunt follow.
Bad Kansas: Stories by Becky Mandelbaum (2017) – I’ve sort of been avoiding short stories, but this one popped up on a Goodreads list, and it may have to be added to my books for Kansas, especially if others don’t pan out. The characters in Mandelbaum’s stories struggle with Kansas and their relationship with it, so it seems tailor-made for helping an outsider get a grip on the place. Mandelbaum won the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for this collection, “in which Kansas is as much a metaphor for dislocation and disconnection as it is a state.” Although she grew up in Wichita, Kansas, the author now lives in Washington, near Mount Rainier. I’ll update location(s) as needed based on the stories.
Alternates (other books about Kansas):
In addition to the Langston Hughes book and the other Nancy Pickard book mentioned above, I came across several other Kansas books that sounded interesting, but my Want To Read list for Kansas is already getting pretty full. Leave a comment if you’ve read any of these or the ones above.
The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas (1995) – historical fiction set in Kansas in the 1930s.
Sprout by Dale Peck (2009) – about a gay youth who moves from Long Island to Kansas and has trouble fitting in. I considered this for my YA pick, however, it has gotten very mixed reviews; it sounds like it starts off well, but kind of fizzles.
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (2013) – won the 2013 National Book Award; about John Brown and his revolution in the lead-up to the Civil War. Takes place in Kansas and in West Virginia (Harper’s Ferry). Told from the point of view of a black youth (mistaken for a girl by Brown and reluctant to admit to being a boy lest he be swept up into the violence).
Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks (1998) – also tells the John Brown story, narrated by the famous man’s last surviving son, Owen Brown.