As I worked my way through my picks for Kansas, I began to wonder about the differences between Kansas and its neighboring states, and I decided to stay in the area for a while longer. So I’m going to be reading Nebraska next.
I was also interested in the “bleakness” and “mean spirit” I saw in the Kansas books–particularly in the ones with a more contemporary timeframe, so I’m very interested to see if those characteristics carry over into Nebraska as well.
As I started looking for books set in Nebraska, I was somewhat surprised by the number of books I was able to readily find that sounded really interesting, especially contemporary ones. (I had a little more trouble finding modern Kansas books; the ones on my Kansas page that I did not read are all historical except for one.) I’ve got an awful lot of books on the list, and I’m having a really hard time whittling it down.
Here are my picks for Nebraska:
Haven’s Wake by Ladette Randolph (2013) – I’ve been avoiding the books I’ve seen for Indiana and Kansas featuring Mennonites because they either had strong religious themes or were romance novels (or a combination of both). So I’m excited about this novel about the death (and titular wake) of a Mennonite family patriarch in eastern Nebraska told through the points of view and memories of several characters. (Goodreads link.)
The Echo Maker by Richard Powers (2006) – This contemporary Nebraska novel won the National Book Award for 2006 and was also a Pulitzer Prize Nominee. It’s got an odd premise: a man flips his truck and when he wakes he is convinced that the sister who is caring for him has somehow been replaced by an identical impostor. Maybe it’s a rare condition caused by brain trauma, maybe it’s not. The book is also, “set against the Platte River’s massive spring migrations – one of the greatest spectacles in nature,” (from Goodreads’ publisher’s description), so I’m hoping for some great sightings to add to our Life List of Birds in Books! It takes place primarily in Kearney, which is in south central Nebraska, along the Platte River.
Night of the Twisters by Ivy Ruckman (1984) – For our Young Readers’ pick for Nebraska I had to go with a good tornado story. This one deals with both the storm and the realities of its aftermath, and is based on the true story of the Grand Island tornadoes of 1980. My son (10) was born in Milwaukee, but we moved to Los Angeles when he was 3, so he doesn’t remember hiding out in the basement, but as I’ve mentioned before, it was at least an annual occurrence. We may have to read this one together. (Goodreads link.)
The Meaning of Names by Karen Gettert Shoemaker (2014) – A historical novel set during World War I, this one deals with some of the prejudice faced by German American citizens (or long-time residents) during the world wars. Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool also dealt with this theme, and it’s one that is close to my heart, since my grandfather immigrated to upstate New York from Germany between the wars. However, I really wanted to include a Willa Cather book (and I was hoping to include a lesser-known one, like A Lost Lady or One of Ours), so I may swap one for this… (Goodreads link.) Shoemaker sets the book in Stuart, Nebraska, up in the north central part of the state.
Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos (2009) – This contemporary novel includes some elements of magical realism, which I often enjoy. It revolves around the mysterious disappearance of Hope Jones during a tornado in 1978, and the effect this has had on the family ever since. (Goodreads link.) I may have to add Kallos’ book Broken for You to my list for Washington state, especially since that’s where she actually lives, but I’m interested in this one as well. It’s set in a fictional town in southeastern Nebraska, near Lincoln.
The Mover of Bones by Robert Vivian (2006) – This book follows Jesse Breedlove as he digs up the skeleton of a small girl and sets out from Omaha on a journey across the heartland of America. It’s an interesting and deceptively simple premise–why is he doing this and who is the girl? The story is told as a series of accounts by the people he meets along the way. I’ve got so many books on my list already for Nebraska, but this is another one that really seems to have the potential to help me understand the people of this part of the country. (Goodreads link.)
Other Nebraska Books – Alternates or Additional Reading
There were just so many choices for Nebraska that I have to add a few others. If you’re considering a reading adventure of your own, these are some other Nebraska books to consider!
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (1913) – I’m surprised that I’ve never read this, especially given my early love of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I may have to read it simply because I never have… (Goodreads link.)
A Lost Lady by Willa Cather (1923) – As I said, I’d like to add something a little different by Willa Cather. This is sometimes said to be her “most perfect” novel, and I always enjoy the story of an unconventional woman, although, if I’m honest, the fact that it’s told by a lovelorn man who becomes increasingly disillusioned with his idol makes me a little wary.
One of Ours by Willa Cather (1922) – Again, something a little different by Willa Cather. As one might guess from the poppies on the cover, this one deals with World War I. Interesting how often that theme seems to have popped up in the books I’ve seen for Kansas (Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool) and Nebraska (The Meaning of Names by Karen Gettert Shoemaker). Cather won a Pulitzer for this one.
Strange Angels by Jonis Agee (1993) – This one deals with a group of squabbling siblings who take over running a ranching empire in Nebraska after the death of their father. Several reviews mention landscape and nature imagery, so this might actually be a really good one for my challenge; we’ll see how the ones up above pan out and maybe shift it up. (Goodreads link.)
Once Upon a Town: the Miracle of the North Platte Canteen by Bob Greene (2002) – This is a non-fiction documentary book about the North Platte Canteen, a volunteer-run stopover for all the soldiers traveling by train to their postings during World War II–more than six million GIs. If I get bogged down in bleakness, this sounds like a good heartwarming antidote! (Goodreads link.)
Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps by Ted Kooser (2002) – This one sounds like a comedic memoir of an area of southeastern Nebraska known as the Bohemian Alps due to the high concentration of German and Austrian immigrants and the rolling hills, which means it, too, might be a really good choice if some of the ones above don’t work out. (Goodreads link.)
Tin God by Terese Svoboda (2006) – This one also incorporates magical realism, and it may also shed some light on that question of religion and these heartland states. After all, it appears to be narrated by God Him/Herself. “Whispers plague a desperate conquistador lost in tall prairie grass. Four hundred years later, a male go-go dancer flings a bag of dope into the same field. God, in the person of a perm-giving, sheetcake-baking Nebraska farm woman, casts a jaundiced yet merciful eye over the unfolding chaos. Fire and a pair of judiciously applied pantyhose bring the two stories together. A contemplation of divinity and drugs on the ground, Tin God is a funny yet poignant, time-shifting story of the plains,” (from the publisher’s excerpt on Goodreads).
Glory Days by Melissa Fraterrigo (2017) – “The small plains town of Ingleside, Nebraska, is populated by down-on-their-luck ranchers and new money, ghosts and seers, drugs and greed, the haves and the have-nots,” (From Goodreads’ publisher’s excerpt.) Ah, the age-old development conflict–this one sounds like it embodies that bleakness we saw in Bad Kansas. Another good alternate choice for our reading list.
The Plain Sense of Things by Pamela Carter Joern (2008) – This is a historical novel covering three generations of women from a farm family living in western Nebraska. It’s focused on the 1930s to 1950s, but with some concluding bits in the 1970s. Although it tells one family’s narrative, it’s told more in a series of interconnected short stories. A number of reviews called it depressing, so I’m guessing this one also hits that bleakness. (Goodreads link.)
In Reach by Pamela Carter Joern (2014) – By the same author as The Plain Sense of Things, In Reach sounds like it also hits that note of bleakness and despair, but on, perhaps, a more interpersonal level–dealing with loneliness and isolation. In some ways, this one may give us more insight into life on the plains than her previous book. Joern writes about “the small plains town of Reach, Nebraska, where residents are stuck tight in the tension between loneliness and the risks of relationships,” (from the Goodreads publisher’s excerpt.)