The Virgin of Small Plains by Nancy Pickard (2006) was a definite winner, at least in terms of learning about Kansas. While Becky Mandelbaum’s Bad Kansas left me full of bleakness, Nancy Pickard’s Kansas gave me some hope. Not that she was all rosy about the state–there were plenty of descriptions of that bleakness.

He hadn’t had a reason to be there in years, and he was a little shocked to see how much the tiny town had declined since then. There never had been more than a handful of jobs there, and a scattering of houses. It was barely even a town. But it was in even worse condition now, with hardly a sign of life on the bedraggled-looking, two-block Main Street.

And Abby’s observations about Small Plains itself:

No matter how much better it was doing than a thousand other towns, Small Plains was always just one disaster away from their fate. Most of the stores along this main street were occupied, but that didn’t mean there were no empty storefronts at all. There were, in fact, three of them in a five-block area… Three wasn’t much, as such things went, in old towns of this size, but it only counted the vacant ones. For every one of those three that had already failed, Abby knew of a dozen others that were struggling. They were making it, still making it, but barely.

But that bleakness was counterpointed by wonderful descriptions of the landscape. Sometimes it’s just a lovely turn of phrase, like, “twilight turned the prairie lavender,” or, “it struck him that he had lived his childhood in the heart of an impressionist painting.” Sometimes it’s a phrase that also emphasizes a bit of that bleakness, like, “in the midst of harsh winter or searing summer, when only a diehard Kansan could have loved the daunting landscape.” And sometimes the descriptions are filled with caveats, like this one: “when the Flint Hills were at their most stunning, especially now in the fresh light of a spring morning. He’d forgotten how gorgeous this area could be at certain times of year, in certain light, in pleasant weather” (emphasis mine).

And, while there were definitely characters who wanted to escape Kansas, or who had given up hope (or both), there were also some who wanted to be there.

how good it had felt to live in the heart of a huge country, with land spreading out in every direction. He had forgotten what it was like to climb to the top of one of the high flat hills and be able to see into four counties, what it was like to be able to walk or ride anywhere for miles around, and always run into people who knew him. He had forgotten what it was like to feel safe. He had forgotten what it was like to feel loved, if not convincingly by his own parents, then by an entire community.

Or this:

Abby had thought he loved their hometown as much as she did. She thought they had talked about it, how they wanted to stay here, where their families had roots going back a long, long time.

I didn’t get much of that feeling of casual meanness from the characters in this book the way I did from Mandelbaum’s Bad Kansas or Paige’s Dorothy Must Die, except from the character of Patrick, who everyone seems to think ill of, and one note about Jeff Newquist, the adopted son, who had “long dark hair that he wore caught back at the nape of his neck in the kind of ponytail that was sure to get yanked on by every cowboy who walked past it.” That comment, along with the fact that the whole community refers to Jeff as the “Substitute Son,” does seem to indicate a casual, unthinking cruelty expressed not just by kids but by all of the residents of a small town.

On the other hand, the character of Abby is almost too sweet and good to believe (like Baum’s Dorothy), although she does have a streak of that tough farm girl in her. And when Mitch returns to Small Plains, he notes:

There were certain things a person never forgot about the country, Mitch thought. One was how to shoot. Another was the stories of strangers who holed up in empty farm and ranch houses, people for whom any port in a storm would do, especially if it was somebody else’s port. By and large, they were people you didn’t want to mess with. They were, occasionally, escaped convicts passing through. It was a wide, empty, lonely countryside. Help could take hours to arrive.

Now, I don’t know how often there really are escaped convicts running around the Kansas countryside, but the parts about learning to shoot, and an element of caution or perhaps healthy (?) paranoia, seem authentic. (Abby also demonstrates both of these when she waits on her porch with a loaded rifle for an expected and unwelcome visitor.)

It must be said that the ending of The Virgin of Small Plains is almost absurdly fairy-tale-like, with the wronged-hometown-hero-turned-self-made-rich-businessman buying up all the defunct businesses around town to fix them up and singlehandedly save Small Plains from the ghost town fate of other small towns in the area. Yeah. That part really lacked in realism. It sounds really nice, but… Yeah…

And while we’re on the topic of realism and endings, — SPOILER ALERT!! —

The twist of the whodunit was really annoying. First of all, I hate it when vital information for solving the case is completely withheld. Looking back, there might have been hints of hints to come (so to speak), but no rumors, no uneasiness, no unusual or unexplained bad feelings–all of which should have been there. Because, secondly, you can’t tell me that in a small town, where everyone knows absolutely everything about their neighbors (especially the bad parts), that no one would have had any inkling about that particular character flaw. If there’s even the hint of corruption or scandal in a small town, everyone knows and there are rumors. Yet we’re supposed to believe that his friends all knew this weakness, were willing to cover it up, and no one else had any clue. Right…

— END OF SPOILER —  Back to the descriptions of Kansas…

I suppose that including an actual tornado in a book set in Kansas is pretty cliché, however the descriptions of those clouds was spot on–particularly the color. In Danielle Paige’s Dorothy Must Die, the tornado clouds were described as “a muddy, pinkish brown,” which I can only attribute to her attempts to add a bit of grayness to all of her descriptions of Kansas (including the people and life in general) as a throwback to the movie-version black-and-white Kansas. But Nancy Pickard gets it right.

The air darkened even more, changing the feeling of the scene at which she was staring. Now, in the eerie, ominous cast of the greenish light, everything looked hyper-accentuated, as if an artist had outlined every building with a black line, making all of them pop out from the air around them. Abby thought it still looked beautiful in a strange way, like a painting by a demented artist. There were odd angles she had never noticed before, juxtapositions of signs she could swear she had never seen before. The gargoyles on the nineteenth-century bank building on the corner seemed to shift on their pedestals, to flash their bulging eyes. Her hometown looked vulnerable in the strange light.

And:

Ever after that, they had eagerly scanned the bottoms of every storm cloud, hoping for that characteristic roiling action, that spooky special color that looked like car oil, praying for the storm to work itself up into the full boiling fury of a funnel.

And:

It grew darker by the instant, it seemed, but not so dark that she couldn’t detect the oily green-black roiling of the bottom edge of the clouds directly above her.

I remember that eerie greenish light; it’s pretty unforgettable. So, overall, this was a great choice for my challenge–the descriptions of Kansas, bleak and hopeful, landscape and character, were great, and I definitely feel better about Kansas than I did after reading Bad Kansas: Stories by Becky Mandelbaum. However, for the story itself, I’m not sure I would recommend it; the flaws mentioned above were a bit too much for me.

I will be very interested to see how the descriptions I’ve read in the Kansas books compare to other nearby states, such as Colorado (eastern), Nebraska, and Oklahoma. What is it that sets these Great Plains states apart–geologically, culturally, historically–from each other? How different are the people who live in Kansas from those who live in, say, Nebraska? Are there historic elements that separate these states fundamentally? I think we tend to generalize and lump those central states together–Great Plains, Bible Belt, Midwest–but what sets them apart?

Stay tuned, and we’ll try to figure it out…

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