Armchair America: Nebraska through Books

March 17, 2015

Vintage postcard of Nebraska

Vintage postcard of Nebraska

“The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska.”
—  Willa Cather, My Antonia

I decided to stray from my alphabetical journey across America through books.  Having read my way through Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, and Arkansas, today I am making a detour to Nebraska in preparation for an upcoming trip to see the sandhill crane migration along the Platte River.

I can remember traveling to Nebraska only once before on a car trip with my parents.  We drove from Minnesota to Colorado, and the one memory I have of Nebraska is that it was flat, seemingly endless, and rather boring.  The Willa Cather quote that opens this post gave me a chuckle because it resonated with my recollection of the state.

Map of Nebraska

Map of Nebraska

Vintage postcard

Vintage postcard

I consulted with Rita, a reference librarian at the Kearney Public Library, for book recommendations for my pre-trip reading.  I asked for books by Nebraska authors or books that take place in Nebraska.  Here is the list of suggestions from this local expert:

Adult Fiction:

  • Echo Maker by Richard Powers
  • Any of the Alex Kava mysteries
  • Any of Willa Cather’s novels, but especially O Pioneers and My Antonia.  Cather was born in Virginia but moved to Nebraska when she was 9 years old.  She graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Adult Nonfiction:

  • Any books by Paul Johnsgard, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an internationally renowned ornithologist and crane expert
  • The Great Platte River Road: The Covered Wagon Mainline via Fort Kearney to Fort Laramie by Merrill Mattes
  • A Prairie Mosaic by Steven Rothenberger and Susanne George-Bloomfield
  • The Platte River: An Atlas of the Big Bend Region by Allan Jenkins
  • The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley


  • Have You Seen Mary by Jeff Kurrus
  • The Nebraska Adventure by Jean Lukesh

Nebraska Photographers:

  • Michael Forsberg  (My library has one of Forsberg’s books, Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild, but unfortunately it was checked out by another patron, and I was not able to read it before my trip.  I did look at his online photographs, however.  Spectacular!
  • Solomon Butcher (including Sod Walls: The Story of the Nebraska Sod House and Photographing the American Dream)

Nebraska Poets:

  • Ted Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate 2004 – 2006
  • Twyla Hansen, Nebraska’s current Poet Laureate

And these are the books I actually read on my armchair travels to Nebraska:

Adult Fiction:

My Antonia by Willa Cather.  This novel is told through the voice of Jim Quayle Burden, who at age 10 becomes orphaned and is sent to live with his grandparents in Nebraska.  Antonia is the daughter of immigrants who homestead on a neighboring farm.  Even after Jim and his grandparents move to town, he keeps in touch with Antonia while he goes to high school.  Antonia moves to town, too, as a “working out” girl, hired as a housekeeper for a town family.  She runs away to get married, but is abandoned unmarried and with child.

Eventually Jim moves away for college and law school, and 20 years later he returns for a visit.  He finds Antonia — who had returned in disgrace — now married, mother to a houseful of kids, living a hard-working life on a farm. . . but joyful and filled with life and strong ties to the land.  She says, “I like to be where I know every stick and tree, and where all the ground is friendly.  I want to live and die here.”

Jim gives some vivid descriptions of the Nebraska landscape of his childhood:  “Between that earth and that sky I felt erased . . .”  And he also felt ” . . . buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate:  burning summers when the world lies green and billowy beneath a brilliant sky, when one is fairly stifled in vegetation, in the color and smell of strong weeds and heavy harvest; blustery winters with little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and gray as sheet-iron.”

Jim lived in a wooden, not sod, house with a windmill, sunflower-bordered roads, with rattlesnakes, and shaggy red grass “as far as the eye could reach.”  It was a wide open landscape.  “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. . . . And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.”

“Trees were so rare in that country, and they had to make such a hard fight to grow, that we used to feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were persons.”

And the sunsets were glorious:  “The whole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed.  That hour always had the exultation of victory, of triumphant ending. . . It was a sudden transfiguration, a lifting-up of day.”

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather.  The protagonist of this novel, Alexandra Bergson, is the daughter of Swedish immigrants homesteading in Nebraska.  She is the strongest, smartest, and most industrious of her parents’ children, so when her father dies, Alexandra takes over the farm.  With her smart business sense, she risks going into debt to expand the family’s holdings against the reluctance of her more staid brothers.  Years later, the brothers have been set up on land of their own, and Alexandra is one of the wealthiest farmers in the area.

Cather depicts the challenges and hardships of farming on the prairie.  “Our lives are like the years, all made up of weather and crops and cows.”  And she also shows the dark side of relationships turned sour, lonely souls, and unrequited love.

Echo Maker by Richard Powers.  This novel explores the mysteries of the brain.  Mark suffers brain damage from an accident, and when he starts recovering, he believes that his sister Karen is an imposter, that someone is impersonating her.  Meanwhile he is also trying to recover his memories of the accident — where were his friends that night?  Was someone in the truck with him?

The backdrop for this novel is the sandhill crane habitat near Kearney, a seemingly wide open landscape, but really one with dark secrets.  “She felt all over again, as she had as a child, the vicious treelessness of this place.  Not a scrap of cover in sight.  Do anything at all, and God would spy you out.”

“It seemed to him, as he drove, one of the last places left in the country where you would have to face down the conflicts of your own soul, stripped of all packaging.”

When those secrets are lifted to the light of day, the confusion over Mark’s accident starts to lift, too.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell.  This young adult novel by an Omaha author was one of my favorites.  It is a story of first love, a universal theme that really could have taken place anywhere.  I was drawn to Eleanor, who feels herself something of a misfit after moving to a new school midway through her high school experience.  She is subject to bullying at the school, but is also struggling with an abusive stepfather.  Her slowly evolving friendship with Park and budding love give her strength to persevere through life’s challenges.  The writing is excellent and the relationship feels authentic.

A Perfect Evil by Alex Kava.  This is the first in a series of eleven novels about FBI profiler Maggie O’Dell.  And although this book is by a Nebraska writer, the Nebraska setting is not essential to the story.  Maggie is called to assist the sheriff of Platte City, Nick Morrelli, in solving the murders of three boys.  The murder’s identity is pretty clear about one third of the way through the book, but there is a twist at the end and some loose ends that I imagine are designed to keep readers interested in the next books in the series.  Alas, I will not be one of those readers!

Adult Nonfiction:

Map showing the trails west along the Platte River from Platte River Narratives by Merrill J. Mattes

Map showing the trails west along the Platte River from Platte River Narratives by Merrill J. Mattes

Happy as a Big Sunflower:  Adventures in the West, 1876 – 1880 by Rolf Johnson.  This is the diary of a man who, at age 20, emigrated with his parents and siblings to Nebraska.  They were part of a group of families of Swedish descent who travelled by train to Kearney and then by wagon to Phelps County to establish homesteads.   Included are some descriptions of the Nebraska landscape:  “Leaving Omaha we soon crossed the Elkhorn and found ourselves on the plains, which stretched away to the horizon, a treeless waste covered with brown and russet wild grass. . . . Occasionally a stream with a fringe of trees along the banks broke the monotony of the scene.”

Later in summer, Johnson talks about a walk amidst the sandhills:  “We had a pleasant walk over the prairie, which is carpeted with a soft velvety coat of buffalo grass and many varieties of prairie flowers.

From the top of one of the hills we had a fine view of the surrounding country.  To the east stretched a thousand hills with green grass; to the north the broad valley of the Platte, with the river like a  belt of silver with its emerald isles. . . ”

Conditions in the early days were very harsh and uncomfortable.  They first arrived in March, and March in the prairie was still unforgiving winter:  “A snow storm is now raging the like of which I have never seen before.  The snow is falling about with its blinding force and it is about as much as a man’s life is worth to go out to the well after a bucket of water.”

“Last evening we had to bring the horses into the house for fear they’d perish outside and they kept stamping overhead all night so we could not sleep, fearing they would come through the floor.”

“A snow storm has been raging all day and we have been crowded into the dark cellar like so many rats in a hole.”

Some of the new settlers lived in a dugout, “which is partly a cave and partly built of log and mud.  They are perched here and there on the steep banks and hidden away in crevices like so many swallows nests.”  Others lived in sod houses.  Johnson describes how to build a sod house starting with breaking sod with a plow and cutting it into bricks about 12 inches long and 4 inches wide.  The walls on his family’s sod house were two feet thick, enclosing an interior 16 x 21 feet.   “Building sod houses, especially when the wind blows, is not quite as pleasant as being out buggy riding with a girl.  One’s nose, eyes, mouth, ears, and hair gets full of loose dirt.  OK! its bad!”

Johnson writes about other challenges of homesteading in Nebraska:  mishaps with oxen, equipment breakdowns, losing crops to grasshoppers, prairie fires, encounters with rattle snakes, the drought.  “Sadly in want of rain.  The ground is so dry and hard it is almost impossible to plow.”  Sometimes they scavenged buffalo bones to sell at $6 a ton for needed cash.

Still, it was a surprisingly social place, especially for a young single man.  Johnson talked about breaking bees (similar to quilting bees but gathered for the purpose of breaking the sod prairie), hiring out during harvest times, going on a buffalo hunt, and visiting friends.

All in all, the diary entries paint a realistic picture of Nebraska life during the homestead years.  A nice pairing with Cather’s novels.

An Immense Journey: An Imaginative Naturalist Explores the Mysteries of Man and Nature by Loren Eiseley.  Eiseley was born in Lincoln, Nebraska and he writes as a naturalist and anthropologist.  He discusses how scientists and philosophers place man in the evolutionary scheme of things.  And he muses about how the development of consciousness in humans fits with the succession of life on this planet.  He believes that the rapidity of change in the human brain, a surge in growth, seems to be a unique modification and adaptation story in history:  “In the first year of life, its brain trebles in size.  It is this peculiar leap, unlike anything else we know in the animal world, which gives to man his uniquely human qualities.”

I like how Eiseley wove personal stories into his more scholarly essays.  Here he describes the Platte River:  “As it leaves the Rockies and moves downward over the high plains towards the Missouri, the Platte River is a curious stream.  In the spring floods, on occasion, it can be a mile-wide roaring torrent of destruction, gulping farms and bridges.  Normally, however, it is a rambling, dispersed series of streamlets flowing erratically over great sand and gravel fans that are, in part, the remnants of a mightier Ice Age stream bed.  Quicksands and shifting islands haunt its waters.”  And here is the Platt River in winter:  “The land was stark and ice-locked.  The rivulets were frozen, and over the marshlands the willow thickets made such an array of vertical lines against the snow that tramping through them produced strange optical illusions and dizziness.”

I will soon be seeing the Platte River in winter, and I am curious to see how it compares today to Eiseley’s experience of it.

Flying at Night:  Poems 1965 – 1985 by Ted Kooser.  I liked quite a few of the poems in this collection because the images of farmhouses, Midwestern folk, and the countryside rang true to my memories of growing up on a farm in Minnesota.  Here is one of Kooser’s poems about his state:

“So This Is Nebraska”

The gravel road rides with a slow gallop
over the fields, the telephone lines
streaming behind, its billow of dust
full of the sparks of redwing blackbirds.

On either side, those dear old ladies,
the loosening barns, their little windows
dulled by cataracts of hay and cobwebs
hide broken tractors under their skirts.

So this is Nebraska.  A Sunday
afternoon; July.  Driving along
with your hand out squeezing the air,
a meadowlark waiting on every post.

Behind the shelterbelt of cedars,
top-deep in hollyhocks, pollen and bees,
a pickup kicks its fenders off
and settles back to read the clouds.

You feel like that; you feel like letting
your tires go flat, like letting the mice
build a nest in your muffler, like being
no more than a truck in the weeds,

clucking with chickens or sticky with honey
or holding a skinny old man in your lap
while he watches the road, waiting
for someone to wave to.  You feel like

waving.  You feel like stopping the car
and dancing around the road.  You wave
instead and leave your hand out gliding
larklike over the wheat, over the houses.

Quite serendipitously, Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac posted another of Kooser’s poems a week before my Nebraska trip.  I could see myself in this particular poem:

“A Person of Limited Palette”
by Ted Kooser, from Splitting an Order. © Copper Canyon Press, 2014

I would love to have lived out my years
in a cottage a few blocks from the sea,
and to have spent my mornings painting
out in the cold, wet rocks, to be known
as “a local artist,” a pleasant old man
who “paints passably well, in a traditional
manner,” though a person of limited
talent, of limited palette: earth tones
and predictable blues, snap-brim cloth cap
and cardigan, baggy old trousers
and comfortable shoes, but none of this
shall come to pass, for every day
the possibilities grow fewer, like swallows
in autumn. If you should come looking
for me, you’ll find me here, in Nebraska,
thirty miles south of the broad Platte River,
right under the flyway of dreams.


Photo by Solomon Butcher from Prairie Visions

Photo by Solomon Butcher from Prairie Visions

Photo by Solomon butcher from Prairie Visions

Photo by Solomon Butcher from Prairie Visions

Prairie Visions: The Life and Times of Solomon Butcher by Pam Conrad.  This book introduced me to Solomon Butcher, a photographer who took pictures of Nebraska pioneers.  The typical setting was outdoors in natural light, in front of a sod home, and including some prized possessions (a piano in one photo!), all designed to show “people set in the drama of their everyday lives.”  Butcher was considered lazy by some of the hard-working settlers because he simply could not settle into homesteading.  Instead he worked odd jobs and set up a photo gallery so that newcomers — farmers and their families — could get portraits to send back to relatives back East.  In 1886 he started a dream project to document the history of Custer County, Nebraska.  He spent 7+ years on the road with a wagon and supplies and took over 1500 photos and collected stories and biographies.  Then his home caught fire and he lost all the narratives.  Thankfully his glass plate negatives were safe in an out building.  Butcher had to start over, reconstructing the text.  Thanks to the patronage of Ephram Swain, his work was compiled into a book that was published in 1901:  Pioneer History of Custer County, Nebraska.

Because this is juvenile nonfiction, the life of Solomon Butcher is described in a very accessible way.  We learn about the 1862 Homestead Act, which gave 160 acres of land free to any adult, citizen, head of household provided they paid an upfront filing fee of $14, built a home on the land (a shack would do), made improvements to the land in the first 6 months, and lived there for five years.  They proved up after five years by paying the remaining $4 of the filing fee and providing testimonials of two witnesses.  Still, many claims were abandoned because the settlers were ill prepared or ill equipped to be farmers, or the conditions were too harsh.

We also learn about sod houses, which were cool in the summer and warm in the winter.  But the roofs leaked, snakes and small animals lived in the walls, and mud fell from the ceiling.

I was also interested to learn that there were black settlers who took advantage of the Homestead Act after the Civil War.

Conrad includes some of Butcher’s pioneer narratives in this book, including the story of a dead frog in a coffeepot, a book-smart judge who carried water for two miles through 2 feet of snow, and a hotel where 15 men slept in one room with six blankets.

The next state on my armchair travels:  California



3 Responses to “Armchair America: Nebraska through Books”

  1. shoreacres Says:

    Oh, am I envious! We have sandhill cranes here in small flocks during the winter, but I’ve wanted to go to Nebraska and see the migration. All of my possibilities for travel of any sort have been ended by the need for eye surgery in April/May — and the need to pay for it. I see lots of work in my future. So, I’ll especially enjoy your trip.

    You’ve some fine selections on your list. There’s a short story by Annie Proulx in The New Yorker about the prairie life. The illustration is a crop from Butcher’s photo of the Crisman sisters: homesteaders back in the day when women homesteading alone was unusual, to say the least.

    My mother’s father lived in Nebraska, as did other relatives. I have a very few photos and postcards. They were around Burwell, in the western part of the state, and some in the first generation there lived in sod shanties.

    “An Immense Journey” is one of my favorites of Eiseley’s. You’ll enjoy it.

    I can’t wait to hear the reports.

  2. Diana Studer Says:

    and a blog?
    Benjamin Vogt of the Deep Middle.
    Prairie me out

  3. […] and history.  One of the reasons I’ve been remiss in keeping up the series (my last post was in March) is that all the “required” reading seemed daunting.  I tend to go […]

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