Andrea Reads America: Wyoming

Wyoming, the final state on my literary tour of the US. I’ve never been to Wyoming, and my impression of Wyoming is that of a frontier state that still carries a frontier mindset of being wild and free, with a deep desire to be left alone. I suppose I think of it in its past state, when horsemen roamed the plains, native Americans hunted buffalo, and whites drove cattle to Wyoming and Montana and took over the grazing land. Though that’s not it’s current state, that history lingers in its people and its literature.

Book: Cowboys and East Indians
Author: Nina McConnigley, raised in Casper
Setting: Casper, Wyoming, early 2000s

Cowboys and East Indians is a book of short stories about “the wrong kind of Indian” in Casper, Wyoming. The characters are primarily East Indians — Indians from India instead of the Native American “Indian” who they are often confused with, being the only other brown-skinned people in the state.

My mother had married white as well. And to be even fairer, at the last Census, Wyoming was 93.9 percent white. We fell into the 1.5 percent that was Other.

Nina mcconigley

These East Indians seem exotic to Wyoming folk, with their colorful saris and their spicy curries, and this book does a wonderful, sometimes hilarious, job of juxtaposing East Indian cultural norms against those of cowboy Wyoming. The author also made me feel the big open space of Wyoming, and she made me want to go there.

With so much horizon, I felt I could think.

Nina Mcconigley

Novel: The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains
Author: Owen Wister
Setting: Wyoming 1874-1890

Published in 1902, The Virginian is Wister’s love letter to the West.

This year Spring is early. The snow is off the flats this side the range and where the sun gets a chance to hit the earth strong all day it is green and has flowers too, a good many. You can see them bob and mix together in the wind.

Owen Wister

Wister spent summers in the Wyoming terriotory beginning in 1885, and his portrayal of the Virginian, a southerner moved West, marries both the genteel and the wild in a gentleman cowboy.

The Virginian explores the differences of the refined east and the wild west, but in a more subtle way than the popular cowboy fiction and cinema that came later. The landscape is beautiful, quiet, and unspoiled in Wistler’s hands.

For thirty days by the light of the sun and the camp-fire light they saw no faces except their own; and when they were silent it was all stillness, unless the wind passed among the pines, or some flowing water was near them.

Owen Wistler

Beyond his descriptions of the land, which I very much appreciated, his attention to horsemanship, decorum, duty, and personal honor were refreshing. Cloaked in well-written dialect, Wistler sneaks in pearls of wisdom throughout the book.

They thought more o’ me than I deserved, and that made me behave better than I naturally wanted to.

Owen Wistler

“When a man ain’t got no ideas of his own,” said Scipio, “he’d ought to be kind o’ careful who he borrows ’em from.”

Owen wistler

I loved that this book wasn’t filled with hyperbole like so much entertainment is today. The Virginian provides a great balance of refinement and wilderness that feels fresh even though it’s over 100 years old.

Novel: Open Season
Author: C.J. Box, Wyoming born and raised
Setting: Twelve Sleep County, Wyoming

The final read of my Andrea Reads America project, Open Season ticks one of the main boxes I was looking for when I embarked on this journey: authenticity of place. Before I read Open Season, I read a little about the author, who said of his childhood reading books:

I remember being troubled that nearly every book I read set in my state and region seemed to come from a point of view or perspective I didn’t recognize in those around me. The novels all seemed to be written by authors who had visited the state with preconcieved notions or by people who had just moved to Jackson Hole.

C.J. Box

Open Season is about a new, green game warden, Joe Pickett, who’s a bit bumbling but is a rule-follower and a good man. The hunters in his county aren’t happy about him issuing them tickets or not taking bribes like his predecessor did. Things get messy when it becomes clear a species thought extinct has actually been spotted in their county.

In this novel, the frontier spirit is strong: the spirit of freedom and letting the wild be wild (for white folks), and living off the land by hunting and fishing — without interference from the government. That spirit is so strong that hunters will commit murder and intentionally exterminate a species rather than have a bunch of outsiders come in and kick them off their hunting grounds.

Andrea Reads America: Wisconsin

Andrea Reads America: Wisconsin

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Wisconsin. Maybe hockey and cheese? What I read felt more like Minnesota, but I probably didn’t read the right kinds of books to get the cliché Wisconsin. The Jesus Cow was the closest to dairy I got. I probably should have read a mystery to get the real scene setting I was looking for; I’ve found cozy mysteries are among the best for providing a sense of place. I was super excited to read The Art of Fielding again though. In fact, two of the books I read included a love of baseball. Is baseball big in Wisconsin, or was that just a coincidence?

Novel: The Art of Fielding
Author: Chad Harbach
Setting: Wisconsin

More about becoming excellent, about literature and baseball, and about the mixed up relationships among a close-knit group at Westish liberal arts college than about Wisconsin, I still couldn’t wait to read The Art of Fielding again when I got to Wisconsin on my reading tour. Filled with flawed and loveable characters, including my second favorite Owen in literature — an Owen who, like Owen Meany, is the centerpiece in a story that involves a baseball cracking into someone’s head — this Owen is a refined, elegant baseball player and scholar who reads books in the dugout with a reading light clipped to his baseball cap.

The Art of Fielding is a page-turner with depth and beauty, with a cast of characters I loved, and who I didn’t want to say goodbye to in the end.

Novel: Wingshooters
Author: Nina Revoyr
Setting: Central Wisconsin

Told from the perspective of a half-Japanese, half-white child who is abandoned by her parents to live with her grandparents in their small Wisconsin town, Wingshooters is a story of how blinded people can be to their own cruelty. Michelle’s white grandparents reject her Japanese mother but accept Michelle with full-hearted love and teach her how to stand up for herself against the racism she encounters as a mixed-race child in a white Wisconsin town.

But when a black couple comes to town, her grandfather and his friends show their true racist colors. Her grandfather does not see at all how the way he treats the black couple, and the hatred he shows them and their differentness, is exactly the same hatred he defends Michelle against from the town.

What I appreciate most about this book is how well it demonstrates the awful recognition that someone you love is capable of inflicting terrible harm, and with such unjustified hatred, because they are racist. How do you deal with that when you love them more than any other person on earth? It also clearly shows the ridiculousness of the “I’ve never seen that person do anything bad” argument when a man is accused of abuse. Abusive men hide their abuse well — of course they don’t present themselves to the world as abusers! — and so the world defends the abusers instead of their victims.

“This is your fault!” she cried out. “You could have stopped this! You could have stopped him the day Kevin went to the emergency room. You could have stopped him when they saw Kevin’s scars at school. But you had to stick by him, be his buddy. You had to deal with this like men.” Her face screwed up when she said this. “And instead of doing right by Kevin and me, you just looked the other way.”

nina Revoyr

Novel: The Jesus Cow
Author: Michael Perry
Setting: rural Wisconsin

Set in the small town of Swivel, WI, a tiny place the Interstate now runs through, The Jesus Cow is a comic story about a quiet bachelor farmer, Harley Jackson, whose new calf has a perfect likeness of Jesus on its flank. Harley tries to hide the calf at first, knowing the hubub it would create, but after the calf is spotted by the mail carrier, next thing Harley knows, his calf is all over the Internet, and pilgrims are trampling his private property for a glimpse of the sign from God. His farm turns into a full blown circus, with a talent agency managing every aspect of it, and Harley the quiet bachelor — along with the quiet town — gets swept away by it.

“Well… I… ah… yah! Yah!” In his eager panic to complete a sentence, he went full-on Norwegian.

Michael Perry

This was a fun, light read, and after living in Minnesota for a couple of years, I especially appreciated the Wisconsin accents and midwestern aloofness.

Andrea Reads America: West Virginia

Map of books set in West Virginia
Andrea Reads America: West Virginia

West Virginia is about an hour west of where we live in Virginia. On weekends, the parking lots at the Wal-Mart and Target in our neighboring town are filled with West Virginia license plates because they are the closest ones to some of the folks near the Virginia / West Virginia border in our part of the state.

We were awed by West Virginia’s emerald beauty when we camped there one summer. The Appalachian mountains there are deep and lush. They’re too steep and rocky for farming and are crowded close enough together to make them hard to pass (or build on). Most of the state is rural, and other than the dangerous jobs in mining coal, there aren’t a lot of money-making opportunities in West Virginia. In 2018, West Virginia had the 4th highest poverty rate in the US.

The three books I read reflect the green abundance, poverty, and coal influence in the state.

Strange as this weather has been book coverNovel: Strange as this Weather Has Been
Author: Ann Pancake, native West Virginian
Setting: 1990s West Virginia during a coal boom

Strange as this Weather Has Been takes place in the 1990s and early 2000s in a hollow down the mountain from a strip mine. It is a book is about what happens below those mines on the mountainside, and what happens to the people living there when mountaintops are blown up so others can have “cheap coal”: massive floods that wash homes away, poisoned streams, secrecy and bullying by the coal companies, and as always, the poor losing out to the rich. It never seems to matter much when it’s the poor whose homes are destroyed.

Honey, you won’t never beat coal. It’s who has the money, the rich people always win, that’s how it’s always been, especially in the state of West Virginia.

This book has a tremendous sense of place, with verdant descriptions of the Appalachian mountains, how close the mountain people are to the land, and how they could sustain themselves from the mountain until the moutaintop removal devastated everything.

At first I didn’t believe everything they said — how nearly a thousand miles of streams had been filled with the rock and dirt that used to be the mountaintops, and how the fill had killed everything there. How what soul was left on the flattened tops was compacted so hard that if anything ever came back besides the grasses and shrubs the company sprayed on, it wouldn’t be for at least several hundred more years. How over fifty percent of the electricity in the United States came from coal.

The tension in the book isn’t just between the strip mining companies and the local population. The bigger tension is whether to stay or whether to go, and how the “If you don’t like it, just leave” argument is a bullying tactic that doesn’t take into account that leaving costs money, not just to get away, but to live elsewhere. More importantly, it doesn’t account for a person’s love and connection and claim to their homeland. This novel is a love story for the West Virginia mountains, and the heartbreak that happens when the object of your love is destroyed.

175AMemoir: The Glass Castle
Author: Jeannette Walls
Setting: 1960s/70s West Virginia

Set partly in the western desert, partly in West Virginia, and partly in New York City, The Glass Castle is Jeannette Walls’s memoir of growing up in a family that was always on the move as her dad lost job after job and her mom opted not to work so that she could paint. The most vivid parts of the book, and the deepest poverty and abuse, take place in West Virginia.

The house was a dinky thing perched high up off the road on a hillside so steep that only the back of the house rested on the ground. The front, including a drooping porch, jutted precariously into the air, supported by tall, spindly cinder-block pillars… Since we couldn’t afford to pay the town’s trash collection fee, our garbage was really piling up.

Neither parent changed their behavior even though their kids had no food and were pilfering lunches from school garbage cans. Yet despite the poverty, Walls presents it like an adventure, through the eyes of an innocent, if scrappy, child who doesn’t know any different. She does a magnificent job of making her parents sympathetic despite the abuse they subjected their children to, and she presents a life of hunger and filth as a romp rather than a tragedy.

We were also always dirty. Not dry-dirty like we’d been in the desert, but grimy-dirty and smudged with oily dust from the coal-burning stove.

What I love most about Walls’s book, aside from her wry humor, is how over and over again, she perfectly captures the lush beauty, and sometimes heart-of-darkness wildness, of the thick Appalachians.

During the winter you could see abandoned cars and refrigerators and the shells of deserted houses in the woods, but in spring the vines and weeds and moss grew over them, and in no time they disappeared.

John Henry Days book coverNovel: John Henry Days
Author: Colson Whitehead
Setting: Talcott, West Virginia

It’s 1996 and the US Postal Service is launching a set of folk hero stamps, one of them being John Henry, a black steel-driver from West Virginia said to have beat a steam drill in a race to bore through a mountain to build a rail tunnel. John Henry’s home town is having a celebration to commemorate the stamp, and John Henry Days is the stories of the people who come for it: a group of New York City junkateer journalists, a woman whose father was obsessed with John Henry and ran a John Henry museum out of their home in Harlem, a stamp collector, and the owners of the dumpy motel the out-of-towners stay at.

The book jumps around in time and points of view, sometimes to story-lines that never get picked back up, and the jumps were distracting. They made it too easy to put the book down – there wasn’t a flow to it, and it was too much work for me as the reader to connect the dots. It’s won lots of awards, though, so someone gets it :D. I just didn’t. The scenes in West Virginia were spot on, and I could picture the small town and the mountain John Henry had to drill through.