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.

Guest post: Summer Skin

Map: Nebraska, setting of “Summer Skin” by Leslie Newlin

This is a guest post from Leslie Newlin who contributed in response to the American Vignette: Summer Garments call for submissions. The piece originally appeared on her Parchment Cadenza blog. The setting is Nebraska. Enjoy!

My skin has loved sun since it was 14, when I worked my first summer in the cornfields of Nebraska. Prominently exposed to the blazing sun each day, it was protected only by cheap white tank tops and swishy shorts to keep me cool. As an outdoor laborer, I thought the 100+ degree climate combined with the humid sweat of the corn plants felt almost tropical, and I would imagine I was working in an island rainforest somewhere I’d never been. It wasn’t bad, as long as you didn’t get heat exhaustion and confuse your own body with the endless rows of corn. My water bottle hung heavy around my waist, attached to my canvas work apron along with my supplies.

Walking. Walk through the row. Walk through another row. Walk through all the rows one by one all day. It would rain, and we walked still when new mud had caked on inches thick to our throw-away tennis shoes. The sun would bake the earth into cracking puzzle pieces, and we would walk on through the dust combining with sweat making layers on our skin. Calves of steel would present themselves to me at the end of the summer’s toil, like bronze trophies.

If you looked up, you could see floating bands of green leaves against a faraway blue and smell the pollen as it wafted into the creases of your eyelids and pollinated your hairline.

My cousin drove the crews in the company’s 16-passenger van all over the county and farther, to fields we had been hired out to work. I sat in the back and slept with my head bobbing over the bumps in the road on the long rides. Country music played a little too loudly on the radio and the boys sang along in their oversize, deeply cut off T-shirts. The girls did their best to ignore them and reject them when their language became irreverent. We usually sat separately during lunch on the benches.

We found everything to laugh about, everything was funny to us in the van and on breaks. We gawked and snickered at our supervisors whose genders were mildly ambiguous, who spoke awkwardly and had been in the same line of work since our mothers and fathers did their time in the fields. There was always something hilarious about last night’s affairs, our school teachers, and each other.

One older boy, whose identity was mysterious to us as he was from out of town, talked too much about guns and worked with his shirt off. He made us all uneasy. A young married couple studying at the University worked on my crew one summer. They were put together, bright, interesting and unusual. Whether or not we spoke it, there was a balance to be found here in our group, the just right place between personal carelessness and a serious work ethic. We had struck up a syntax for ourselves that was an expression of the best of both worlds.

A ten minute highway drive home at the end of the day found me peeling off the yellowed tank top and washing away the dried pollen and dirt from my skin. In the shower I would examine my sock tan line and assess the pastiness of my toes. After the final rinse off of the season, every soiled tank and pair of shoes would be ceremonially disposed of, to be replaced with breezy blouses and cut off jean shorts. I would quickly try to repair my sock tan line so that trips to the pool in flip flops would not be an embarrassment.

At night and on days off, I rode my bike all over my small town. A glorious weightlessness beckoned me to ride through dusk and cooler temperatures. I wore as little as possible, for the sake of feeling the air woosh across my fresh skin. I rode to the pool, the coffee shop, beside the railroad tracks, circling neighborhoods, and out as far as my yellow belly would take me down the gravel roads. Once at night while riding with my best friend, we witnessed a double shooting star cascade across the velvet sky.

Though I have traded prairie for pavement in recent years of my life, I look back on teenage summers in Nebraska with fondness. I recall them one by one closely when the sun hits my skin and summer sinks in new.

Leslie Newlin is a music teacher by day and blogger by night. She has always dreamed of writing a book, but has been busy fulfilling her other dream of running a piano studio lately. The writing on her blog is often inspired by childhood memories and everyday life in her midwestern world. You can find more of her writing at and follow her @pianoleslie on Twitter.