December 29, 2018

Nebraska Revisited

When I got to Nebraska, I was surprised at how many options there were for books that were set in the state and that looked interesting to me, and there were several that I just didn’t get to at the time.

This post is a follow-up, to cover a couple that I have eventually gotten to!

My Antonia by Willa Cather (1918) – This was wonderful! I picked it up at a Little Free Library near me back when I first read Nebraska, but I never got around to reading it. Then, when the Other Blogger read Nebraska, she covered it. But I do want to add my two cents that this one is definitely a great addition to a reading challenge like this for Nebraska.

There are some absolutely wonderful landscape descriptions, including many references to a red grass that covered the land in the beginning, during Jim’s and Antonia’s childhood. By the time Jim graduates from Harvard, however, he notes that most of it is gone.

Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough, shaggy, red grass, most of it as tall as I. … As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.

As far as I can tell, the grass Cather is referring to is a native prairie grass most commonly called big bluestem, which, despite the name, has a red stem and can grow four to six or even eight feet tall. One site I came across while looking for it was about the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, which consists of about 600 acres of untouched prairie, near Red Cloud. However, the site has surprisingly few photos of the land that was such an important part of Cather’s work and life. Grass, Wind, and Light: Rediscovering the Great American Prairie, however, has some fabulous photos (albeit from Oklahoma) that show exactly what Cather was talking about (note the horse in the center, whose head is barely above the grass)!

The Home Place by Wright Morris (1948) – This was a lovely one for getting to know Nebraska, too. Because of the format–black and white photos juxtaposed with text–I wasn’t able to read it on my Kindle, and because (unfortunately) Morris isn’t that well-known, by the time it arrived, I had finished my other Nebraska books. But I set it aside to read when I had a chance. It’s an interesting format, because the photos don’t really illustrate the story itself, and, in fact, there are only a few human figures in them. And yet, they do illustrate the setting. (Oddly enough, Andrea also chose a book by Wright Morris for her Nebraska journey–great minds think alike!)

The story itself juxtaposes life in New York City and life on the farm in Nebraska, as the main character and his family leave the city because of the Depression, and come to the Nebraska farm where he grew up. He and his family try to adjust to their change in circumstances, as well as the differences between town life (which is all his wife and children have known) and country life (which he fled from years before). They come across as grasping and opportunistic, and often Morris seems to say that this is because they are “city folks.”

Morris has a wonderful, dry sense of humor–which he also shows off as being part of the Nebraska character–that makes the book a lot of fun!

He was standing with the ball, scratching off the layers of dirt. Under the dirt was a faded orange band, he sniffed at it. “It smells like the subway,” he said. There you have it. There you have it in a nutshell. Two thousand miles from New York a city boy turns up something in a farm yard, it smells damp and earthy, like a storm cave, so he calls it the subway smell.

Or this bit of laconic tall-tale-telling:

The boy sat there, looking at his knobby new head in the mirror. … He looked quite a bit like he’d been scalped. “It’ll grow back, won’t it?” the boy said. “It’ll grow in curly,” said Eddie Cahow, “if you pull the white hair from a mare’s tale.” “That ain’t the way I heard it,” I said. “How’d you hear it?” “You put the white hairs in a can of sand, and the can in a barrel of rain water. Fresh rain water,” I said. “What’ll you get?”said the boy. “Garter snakes,” I said. “That’s the truth,” said Freddy. “That’s the way I heard it.” I looked at him, and he nodded his head, soberly. … “How many good live snakes you average?” he said. “I used to get four or five green striped ones for every long white hair,” I said. “But it had to be white. These grayish lookin’ hairs gave me pollywogs.” “A good red hair,” he said, “will give you some mighty nice fat crawdads. But who wants crawdads?”

The photos seem impersonal–and, as I said above, they are, literally, impersonal since only one or two actually have people in them. I’m torn as to whether this reflects the grasping nature of the characters, who seem only interested in the things they can obtain, rather than the people, or if it is a reflection of the big, wide, open, lonely prairie that we’ve seen in some of the other Nebraska and Kansas books. It may be both. Either way, the photos are very evocative and the book would make a great addition to a Nebraska book list!

(Note: See also California Revisited for a review of The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett, which takes place in California and Nebraska.)

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