We love to declare that God made us in his image, but even so, he’s three billion years old and we’re just babies. I know your opinion of teenagers, Mr. Walker; just bear in mind that to God you and I are much younger, even, than that. We’re that foolish, to think we know how to rule the world.
— Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
It is late October, and the hills have colored up like beets and corn.
Tornadoes, thunderstorms, big sky; flat land, prairie, grasses as far as the eye can see: these were the things I craved from fiction set in the state of Kansas. And the books I read satiated my craving. On top of the immersing the reader in the tall grasses and violent storms of Kansas, these books also delivered on characters, taking the reader into the minds and lives of people who live in such a place.
Despite what many might consider a boring, endless landscape, Kansas fascinates me in its placement in our country: it is situated almost directly in the center of the continental United States. Each of these books showed a different facet of its openness, and the difficulty in pigeon-holing it into a particular region. In many ways it seems midwestern (Scent of Rain and Lightning), in others it seems like the South (Not Without Laughter), but the strongest feeling I get from it, that carries through all the books, is a sense of inner strength, captured most clearly in the pioneer spirit of Little House on the Prairie.
Novel: The Scent of Rain and Lightning
Author: Nancy Pickard, born Kansas City
Setting: Contemporary small town Kansas
Categories: Mystery, Contemporary fiction
This is the second time I’ve read The Scent of Rain and Lightning — I can’t pass up a title like that — and I loved it just as much this time around as I did the first. Set in small town Kansas, “in a county where romantic partners were as scarce as yaks,” this novel is a thriller with compelling characters, perfect pacing, and a sense of place that crackles like the lightning in its title.
He didn’t try to explain ozone to her, or how raindrops hit rocks, releasing the fragrance of oils that plants had rubbed on them, or how spores in the ground give up their own earthy scent in the rain. He just took her out and let her sniff and sniff until she admitted that yes, it smelled good outside after a thunderstorm.
It is the story of Jody Linder whose dad was murdered when she was a child, whose mom disappeared the same night, and who is brought to her knees as an adult when, in the beginning of the novel, she hears that the man accused of killing her dad (and probably her mom as well) is being released from prison.
The book goes back in time from there, taking a dive into the characters — the rich and wholesome farm owners (Jody’s grandparents) and the angry and drunken hired help — the events that led to her father’s murder, and the background for the emotional scarring Jody carries.
There were so many things that could go wrong after something went right.
The pacing of the story kept me turning pages, and the relationships among the characters engaged me, but it’s the setting of the book that is most memorable, and that made me come back to it. It is not the Kansas of Little House on the Prairie, with descriptions of grasslands that reach out forever, but is instead the flatness, the farm, the one-bar town, the turbulent weather, and most memorable: Testament Rocks, Pickard’s fictionalized version of Monument Rocks, Kansas. This is a stone formation that still stands out in my mind, as it does in the otherwise flat landscape of Kansas, and that Jody returns to again and again in the story, to search for clues to her mother’s disappearance, and to climb for solitude and space to think.
Novel: Not Without Laughter
Author: Langston Hughes
Setting: 1930s Kansas
Categories: African-American fiction
While Not Without Laughter begins with a good Kansas storm, the strength of the novel is its characters, the contrasts among them, and the influences they have on Sandy, the young Kansas black boy whose coming of age story this is. Set in a small country town, in the home of Aunt Hager who is a former slave, Not Without Laughter is Sandy’s story of trying to make sense of the world around him while being pulled in all the directions his family expects of him.
His grandmother, Aunt Hager, expects family to stick together, to go to church, to keep her company. When all of her children leave her, she clings to Sandy, asking him to carry the laundry back and forth to the white folks she does the washing for, sharing her wisdom on the front porch at the day’s end.
White peoples maybe mistreats you an’ hates you, but when you hates ’em back, you de one what’s hurted, ’cause hate makes yo’ heart ugly — that’s all it does. It closes up de sweet door to life an’ makes ever’thing small an’ mean an’ dirty.
Sandy’s dad expects nothing from him, and in fact shows little interest, always playing guitar, always having fun, always running off to other cities, very rarely at home. His Aunt Harriet is tired of being a servant to whites; she is angry about the plight of blacks. She wants to make her way in the world as an actress or singer, and runs with a crowd Aunt Hagar doesn’t approve of. Aunt Tempy has distanced herself from the family, who she thinks acts too black, and is trying to model herself after whites. She expects Sandy to study and be a good representative of the Negro race. Most unexpectedly of all is his own mother, who wants him to drop out of school and get a job scrubbing floors, despite his education and intelligence, so he can help her with the rent.
Meanwhile, Sandy is an innocent kid who admires his dad’s and Aunt Harriet’s fun-loving spirits, who internalizes the constant disapproval and disdain that Aunt Hagar and Aunt Tempy have for his dad and Aunt Harrie, and who feels the weight of responsibility that Aunt Hagar, Aunt Tempy, and even Aunt Harrie place on him, holding him up while putting the fun-loving people in his life down.
You and me was foolish all right, breaking mama’s heart, leaving school, but Sandy can’t do like us. He’s gotta be what his grandma Hager wanted him to be — able to help the black race, Annjee! You hear me? Help the whole race!
The beauty in this book is that in his trying to make sense of it all, he decides that laughter and fun do not make his people lazy, it does not make them poor. It is quite the opposite: the laughter helps his people overcome their pain.
Through and above everything went laughter… That must be the reason, thought Sandy, why poverty-stricken old Negroes like Uncle Dan Givens lived so long — because to them, no matter how hard life might be, it was not without laughter.
Novel: Little House on the Prairie
Author: Laura Ingalls Wilder
Setting: 1870s Kansas
Categories: Pioneer fiction, Children’s literature, Historical fiction
When the big woods of Wisconsin became too crowded, Pa, Ma, and the girls Laura, Mary, and Carrie, packed up the wagon and moved to the wild prairies of Kansas, where land was open and plentiful.
Set before Kansas was settled, Little House on the Prairie is a year under the open sky: a year in the life of a pioneer family who builds a log cabin and stable from logs they harvest from trees along the nearby creek, who digs their own well, who lives on cornmeal and whatever game Pa hunts, and who finds time to play and be free amidst the hard, hard work of being a settler.
The wind made a lonely sound in the grass. The camp fire was small and lost in so much space. But large stars hung from the sky, glittering so near that Laura felt she could almost touch them.
The wildness and freedom of the Kansas prairie is another character among the people of the book, and this is why I love Wilder’s Little House works. The place is alive. I can hear the wind, I can smell the sun-dried grass, I can feel the rough-hewn wood of the cabin walls. She brings us into what it’s like to chop your own trees to make your own lumber to build your own house. To make wooden pegs when you don’t have something as simple as a nail.
The books are refreshing in their wholesomeness, with stories of a family who find joy in a piece of calico cloth, a bag of white sugar, 8 squares of glass for a window. The simplicity of life is shocking, and I have to remind myself that simplicity comes with the costs of danger, and of endless hard, manual work.
For Further Reading in Kansas
Books I’ve read and recommend:
– The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Books that have been recommended to me that I’ve not yet read:
– In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
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.