April 25, 2018

Kansas as Setting

When most people think of Kansas, we tend to think, “flat.” And, after all, in Dorothy Must Die, author Danielle Paige called the Kansas town Flat Hill. I’ve already talked a bit about the Wizard of Oz movie and book (mis)perceptions of Kansas (including that Baum’s original descriptions were based on his unhappy experiences of northeastern drought-stricken South Dakota), and one can see from the photos of Nicodemus (below) that that area of northwestern Kansas is certainly pretty flat.

But the setting of Nancy Pickard’s The Virgin of Small Plains in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas, gives us the perfect opportunity to try to lay to rest the flat misconception!

Flint Hills imageThe Wikipedia page for the Flint Hills gives some good basic information, including a map highlighting the area, which covers a strip of eastern Kansas and extends into northeastern Oklahoma. It mentions, “abundant residual flint eroded from the bedrock that lies near or at the surface,” which made the land undesirable for early settlers looking for farmland. The bluestem of the tallgrass prairie made the land perfect for ranching, though, which is illustrated throughout Pickard’s book, where many of the residents of Small Plains and the surrounding area are ranchers. One of the comments I appreciated in the book dealt with perceptions of size when it comes to ranching.

Mostly, the Newquist’s ranch was only used by Mitch’s parents for entertaining out-of-town judges and lawyer who were easily impressed by a cattle ranch of any size, even if it only had a few dozen head of cows on it. To people from the city, five hundred acres sounded huge. The Shellenberger spread was closer to ten thousand acres. But then, the Shellenbergers ran a real, operating ranch, not just a showplace.

The Flint Hills Discovery Center, located in the city of Manhattan, Kansas (mentioned a couple of times in Pickard’s book), sounds like it has some interesting exhibits about the tallgrass prairie, but if you’re interested in a more immersive experience, the Flying W Ranch offers cattle drives and other ranching vacations.

flint hills flying w image

In the opposite corner of the state (more or less) from the Flint Hills, is Nicodemus. Many of the photos I found, like this aerial view from the Library of Congress and this picture of the town’s 1918 school house from the Kansas Historical Society, show that Nicodemus may be more like the flat lands we tend to think of.

From the descriptions in the book, the dugouts that the Nicodemus settlers built sound like they were built into the sides of low hills, but based on the pictures above, it looks like they would have had to build one of the more pit-like dugouts instead. The passage below sounds like a cross between a dugout and a soddie.

… a burrowed hill fronted by sod bricks. “What kind of dwelling is this?”

“It’s a dugout, but the hills are low, so they’ve added sod bricks to form the front of the house, along with rafters and thatching topped by more bricks to form part of the roof. Having this type of front allows them a window for more light, and they can use wood doors.” That “door” was no more than several wood planks nailed together.

I found some great pictures of both soddies and dugouts, of many different styles. Many of the pictures I saw of soddies look… well, like a house in much the same way a log cabin does–primitive but definitely a house. But from the reactions of most of the characters in the book, and the fact that the word “dugout” is used rather than “soddie,” I’d guess that the dwellings were closer to some of the more primitive dugouts like this one, which is based on the dugout from the Laura Ingalls Wilder books (the real one was built along Plum Creek near Walnut Grove, Minnesota, but all that’s left is a shallow depression).

One aspect I’ve been trying to avoid is religion. In First Dawn by Judith Miller there were definite religious themes to the book. In Letters Never Sent by Sandra Moran, Katherine says, “You can’t not be Christian where I’m from.” In The Virgin of Small Plains by Nancy Pickard, we have a young unidentified murdered girl who is informally made into a saint by the local people who routinely ask her for help with their problems or for healing–there’s even a character who may or may not actually have some sort of spiritual experience in the cemetery during the tornado. Even though none of the stories in Bad Kansas by Becky Mandelbaum had any strongly religious characters in them that I recall, there was mention of the “anti-abortion billboards” in Wichita. Religion wasn’t mentioned in Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige, either, except, perhaps, in the fact that the pregnant teen had not had an abortion. I’m not sure what to make of all of this, and my own (lack of) beliefs make me reluctant to investigate much further, but religion seems to be an important part of the Kansan experience, from those anti-abortion billboards to Katherine singing in her local church choir (and being cursed with eternal damnation by her relatives).

Another aspect of life in Kansas that outsiders don’t always think about is the Prohibition laws. This came up in Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool, in a kind of confusing way. The book switches back and forth between 1917 and 1936, and the twelve year-old girl narrator of the later portions comments at one time, “Alcohol was against the law then as much as it was in 1917,” which made me stop for a moment to think–wait, when was Prohibition in effect? So I looked it up, of course. Now, the nationwide prohibition amendment went into effect in 1920, and was repealed in 1933. But Kansas had a state prohibition from 1881 to 1948, according to this page on Wikipedia.*

Which actually brings up some questions about the flask of whiskey that Annie carries around and brings with her to Kansas in Letters Never Sent by Sandra Moran. I hadn’t really picked up on that aspect of Annie’s whiskey habit–or thought about where she would have gotten it in Kansas during World War II.

But at least it makes me rest easier about Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest–she might not have explained that the statewide liquor laws (especially in the south) took a while to catch up with the national repeal of Prohibition, but the main character’s observation is correct, and hopefully that means Vanderpool’s other research is well-done too.

As for the “mean streak” vibe I was getting from Bad Kansas and Dorothy Must Die and to a lesser extent from The Virgin of Small Plains? It didn’t really show up in the historical novels. As I mentioned, I’m interested in reading one of the neighboring Great Plains states next to see how it differs from Kansas, so I’ll be looking to see if that vibe reappears in contemporary novels set in other states.

*This page also shows a map of the United States that outlines where there are still (as of 2012) liquor laws throughout the country, ranging from the “blue laws” prohibiting sales on Sunday, to actual dry counties (like the one in southern Kentucky where I attended college for a year).

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