Summer Reading

May 30, 2018

Where to begin? At the beginning, with the great novel of the Great Plains: My Ántonia, by Willa Cather. Within a few days I will be attending a symposium devoted to the centennial of the work in Cather’s old home town, Red Cloud. You’ll be hearing about it here. Prepare to fall in love again with a book that is so perfect, it kind of bothers me sometimes as a Lutheran, but I cannot help myself. So now, having begun with the obvious, let me count through a list of titles I recommend for your summer reading on the Great Plains in 2018.

First let’s range farther across the Cornhusker State, into the Sandhills, the girlhood home of Mari Sandoz. Old Jules is her biography of her pioneering, Swiss-immigrant father--a dead shot and a mean sonofagun. I cannot commend him as a model for male behavior in the twenty-first century, but I do commend Mari Sandoz as a model for writing about a childhood on the Great Plains.

For another memory work of growing up on the plains, specifically Osborne County, Kansas, I give you Sod and Stubble, by John Ise. I think the reason Ise’s portrait of his homesteading mother Rosie is so compelling is that, being stricken as a child with polio, little John spent a lot of time around the house with her.

Up the Missouri we travel with the Corps of Discovery, and still the best book ever written about Lewis and Clark is the one by James Ronda, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians. It began the process whereby we of the settler society began to consider the consequence of exploration and expansion on native peoples, and what they thought about it.

The current state of that process of enlightenment, of recentering Great Plains history on its original peoples, is to be read in the work that won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2015: Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People, by Elizabeth Fenn. This is deep history, but it is also current history, recognizing the Mandan as people of the land, still, despite disastrous trauma.

As a member of the Last Picture Show generation, I appreciate and recommend a vivid memoir of late twentieth century life on the northern plains--Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere, by Debra Marquart. Deb doesn’t take herself too seriously, but her narrative is a welcome voice for a generation that largely left the plains, but does not sever ties.

Winner of the 2017 Stubbendieck Great Plains Distinguished Book Prize is the work by environmental historian Dan Flores, American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals on the Great Plains. The chapter on wild horses by itself is well worth the price of purchase. Flores reminds us of the longue durée of history and raises the possibility we may again come to share the territory with creatures who do not hold us in awe.

Here’s a book I have ordered and will read along with you this summer: Chemical Lands: Pesticides, Aerial Spraying, and Health in North America’s Grasslands since 1945, by David D. Vail. I have to read his book, not only as a scholar of the plains, but also as a farmer. I grew up in the Arkansas River Valley during the time when chemical agriculture came to the fore, and now I reside in one of the most intensively farmed regions of the world, the Red River Valley of the North.

For my final recommendation, I invoke the sporting maxim: A good quarterback calls his own number once in a while. Come July 10, a compilation of Plains Folk essays, strung together with enough connecting tissue to constitute a memoir of sorts, will be released by North Dakota State University Press under the title, Pacing Dakota. If you’re hearing or reading this essay, you’ll be hearing about it, or if you’re impatient, advance orders are being taken by NDSU Press.

Read well this summer, friends of the plains.

~Tom Isern