Andrea Reads America: Nebraska

Andrea Reads America Nebraska book map
Andrea Reads America: Nebraska

As seems to be the trend lately, I did not take adequate notes on the books I read from Nebraska. I read these books months ago, then went off on a Daphne du Maurier reading binge which led me on a winding tour that included a re-read of The Shipping News, a couple of beach reads on vacation, and Dracula. I now only have vague impressions of the Nebraska books, which I’ll record here quickly and without polish so that I won’t let this recap post stand in the way with moving on to Nevada in my reading journey.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell book cover Novel: Eleanor & Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell, born Omaha, NE
Setting: 1986 Omaha, Nebraska

While this book could have been set anywhere — the setting doesn’t stand out as a character to me — this was my favorite of the Nebraska books I read. I heard about it over and over again on the Book Riot podcast, and it had been on my to-read pile for a good two years before I finally landed in Nebraska and picked it up. It was worth the wait. I was instantly immersed in the story and the characters, two outsiders in high school, Eleanor and Park. I won’t go into a synopsis — those are all over the Internet and are written by folks for whom the work was fresher on their minds when they wrote about it — I’ll just say I loved this book and the way it made me think and feel.


My Ántonia book coverNovel: My Ántonia
Author: Willa Cather, grew up in Nebraska
Setting: the great plains of frontier Nebraska

Unlike Eleanor & Park, the setting of My Ántonia is as much a character in the novel as Ántonia herself, or as smitten Jim who narrates the story. I often crave pioneer, prairie-set fiction, and My Ántonia and Cather’s other novellas are some of the best I’ve read.

This is my second or third reading of My Ántonia, a beautiful book that transports me to the harsh and wild life of settlers on the great plains.

There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.

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.


Bead on an Anthill A Lakota Childhood book coverBook: Bead on an Anthill: A Lakota Childhood
Author: Daphne Red Shirt
Setting: 1960s and 70s Pine Ridge Reservation in northern Nebraska

Told from her perspective as a native American child growing up on a reservation in Nebraska, these stories of daily life are poignant in their innocence. The simple accounts of a child, as any child would chatter on about, show more than she tells. The notes I have are heartbreaking:

Scarcity: following ants to collect the beads they had carried off from the Lakota camp.

Being weighted down by her buckskin costume at the county fair and having to dance and be on display in front of whites, and be a spectacle — entertainment for them, and her hating to dance. But loving to do the same dance in camp in front of only her own people, and not having to wear the buckskin costume to do it.

Being surrounded by death, and the first death that affected her being her oldest sister, 18 years older, who was like a mother to her but who died from liver failure from drinking wine like water for too many years.


Plains Song by Wright MorrisNovel: Plains Song
Author: Wright Morris
Setting: late 1800’s early 1900’s Nebraska

This book I don’t recall as well, except that I remember it having a powerful sense of place. I remember the women are strong and endure, as they had to when attempting to settle on the American frontier. Kirkus Reviews has a nice writeup of this little known (and little written about) 1981 National Book Award winner, if you like frontier fiction and want to know more.

Andrea Reads America: Montana

Andrea Reads America Montana book map
Andrea Reads America: Montana

I’ve never been to Montana, but I must have had a preconceived notion of what it was like because I was surprised by the books I read. I’m not sure what I had in mind about Montana — maybe the endless grazing land and grizzly bears of the Lonesome Dove cattle drive from Texas to Montana. Those were the days when the land was empty of whites, when it was still a frontier. And of course, Larry McMurtry is a master of setting, and of making you feel like you’re actually in dusty Texas or frigid Montana when really you’re on your couch reading a book.

These books felt different from that, though. Fools Crow came closest, with its descriptions of landscape, sky, and Native American life. And Winter Wheat was second, because I am a sucker for grains and plant life, and because its descriptions of Montana winter delivered on what I expecting for those hard cold months. Death al Dente was just a fun read set in a small modern village in Montana, so that really could have been almost anywhere.

As much as I enjoyed these books, they didn’t give me the Montana I was looking for: lakes and big skies and endless grasses. Do I have the wrong impression of Montana?

Winter Wheat by Mildred Novel: Winter Wheat
Author: Mildred Walker
Setting: 1930s and 1940s central Montana
Categories: Fiction, Coming of Age

This book, checked out from the Virginia Tech library and signed in pencil by the author on June 12, 1945, was exactly the book I needed in February as I restlessly anticipated spring.

In winter there is no place to be by yourself. Dad must have felt that all these years. And there’s nothing important to do except the chores. Winter is a waiting.

Filled with descriptions of working the earth, the 16 hour days of harvesting, waiting out the winter through blizzards that draw children outside and freeze them to death, and then finally hearing water drip, and feeling the ground thaw to mud, and seeing the green of wheat emerge, this was 100% my kind of book.

It’s just winter wheat to the people who raise it, only to me it means more than that. It means all the winter and all the cold and the tight feeling of the house in winter, but the rich secret feeling I have, too, of treasure in the ground, growing there for us, waiting for the cold to be over to push up strong and green.

But it wasn’t just the earthiness of it that I loved. Winter Wheat is a story of coming to understand love — that it’s not just the golden, ripe harvest, but is the invisible strength underground that survives the harshness of winter to push up in spring, again and again and again. Love is something deeper than laughter and prettiness: it survives lashings and storms.

This novel is the coming of age story of Ellen, grown daughter of a Russian mother and New England father, who grew up on a Montana wheat ranch, in love with the sky and the wheat and the wildflowers of her home. The book begins with the harvest that is profitable enough to send her away on her first year of college: her first year away from home, where she falls in love with someone who had a more refined upbringing than her own.

When she brings him home to her unpainted ranch house, her peasant mother, and her war-injured father, for the first time she sees a tarnish on her life. She sees the bad that she never saw before.

And with this she begins to grow up. Winter Wheat is Ellen’s story of deepening and maturing as a person, and of coming to know what love really is.

Fools Crow by James Welch Novel: Fools Crow
Author: James Welch
Setting: post-Civil-War 1860s Montana Territory
Categories: Native American Fiction

It was one of the rare warm days of that winter, and the snow had melted just enough so the metal-rimmed wheels of the big wagons dug into the skin of the earth and left a long, twisting, dirty trail far to the south. The sun rode close and yellow and caused the prairies to shine with a brilliance that made men wipe tears from their eyes.

This is a beautiful, sad book: an intimate view of native American life on the eve of its destruction. It is the story of a young man — a Pikuni — named White Mans Dog in his youth, but who through the narrative develops a new name as he matures and surprises everyone by quietly performing brave and impressive feats. His people begin calling him something more respectable — Fools Crow — after an act of cleverness on his part during a Crow raid.

This book was refreshingly different from the others I’ve read on my cross-USA journey. Written by a Native American author, the language names things as the are and as imbued with the spirituality inherent in them:  the sun is Sun Chief, winter is Cold Maker.

There is great beauty and reverence in this book. Fools Crow and his people had deep respect for the land, the animals, and the elements that the lived so close to and were a part of. The medicine rituals, codes of honor, values, and attentiveness to right and wrong resonated with me. It is heartbreaking to read a book like this — a book of a peaceful life disrupted by conquerors, of death by new diseases — and know how it ultimately turns out.

I am grateful to James Welch for writing this and opening a window to this world to me.

Death Al Dente book cover Novel: Death Al Dente
Author: Leslie Budewitz
Setting: modern-day Jewel Bay, Montana
Categories: Mystery

I didn’t write notes about this book, but I remember it being a fun read. Set in summer in a small tourist town in Montana, it was quite different from the other Montana books I read. It is filled with gourmet food, blue skies, and clean air, and it made me want to eat outside under cloudless blue and drink cold white wine. As with many mysteries, this book created a sense of place that I wanted to be a part of. If I were to visit Montana, I would want to eat in this little town.

For Further Reading in Montana

Books I’ve not yet read:
– Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison
A River Runs Through It and Other Stories by Norman Maclean
Breaking Clean by Judy Blunt
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.