Tag Archives: Kansas

A Loving Tribute to Kansas, and Cautions for Kansans

Book Cover: Ogallala Road
Book Cover: Ogallala Road

Destination: Kansas

Book: The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning (2014) by Julene Bair

Julene Bair wants to write a polemic about the way that the high plains farmers and ranchers of western Kansas mistreat the land. She wants to rant and preach–it is lurking there underneath her memoir–but she can’t quite rise to vitriolic blame for farmers when she realizes that “she am one.” She grew up  on a farm in northeastern Kansas.

Northeast Kansas farmland.
Northeast Kansas farmland. Photo from Wikipedia.

The subtitle of The Ogallala Road expresses the ambivalence that creates a tension throughout this memoir.  On the one hand, she wants to reform the water-wasting habits of the farmers of the Ogallala basin. On the other hand, she realizes that her gruff father’s disregard for the long-range future of Kansas’ water supply helped him run a successful farm and support her throughout her life.

Ogallala Basin, Kansas
Ogallala Basin

Frankly, I am not interested in reading books that preach an environmental harangue.  And Bair, although armed with all the devastating facts and figures about the damage done by modern farming practices to the largest natural reservoir of fresh water , realizes she must give her readers some sugar coating on the bitter pill of reality.  She does that with graceful and sometimes almost painfully honest writing. She leads us through her relationships with her father, her mother, her brother, her teen-age son, and her land.

The opening of the book illustrates the delightful quality of the writing, simple and true.

They were called the High Plains because they were four thousand feet above sea level.  I could feel the altitude in the way the sun sheeted my skin.  It was like standing too close to a fire with no means of escaping, unless I dashed back to the car and switched on the air conditioner.  Instead, I trudged through wheat stubble that used to be the south end of our pasture, my shoes filling with powdery dirt and my socks with stickers.

Right here on the first page, she lets us know what the book is about. Water is always on her mind. Reading may make you thirsty.

But when I arrived at the Little Beaver, I discovered that the creek was now nothing more than a depression.  Runoff from all the newly farmed pastureland had filled it with silt.  Weeds grew where there had once been smooth sand, vacant and pinkish tan.  In my childhood, the sand had poured sensuously through my hands, each granule having its own color, shape, size, sheen.

She introduces a hot romance, which for the first half of the book seems to be the subject matter. This romance between two mature and independent adults seems to be part of her home coming. He is a Kansas rancher. She has moved on to the intellectual life–urban and literary. The relationship is the first test of whether she is still part of the land where she grew up, or whether she has truly moved away.

Then, when we’ve let our guard down, eagerly following the will-they, won’t-they of the romance, Bair moves into her role as an advocate for the land.  It is refreshing to have this message delivered by someone whose life as exposed her to both sides of the issues involved, and who is intelligent enough to realize that there is no simplistic solution.  Although I cringe at the over-romanticized view of the first Americans who occupied the land before the early settlers came, her interest in the deep history of the land provides a fascinating framework for problems of modern agriculture.

As she and her brother are faced with decisions about the family land, she faces another great test of where her loyalties lie.

Have you traveled in Kansas?  My first experience of Kansas was driving across it on the way from Ohio to Arizona.  I recall long straight highways with a grain elevator in the distance marking the next small town of ramshackle buildings stretched between the highway and the railway track.

Since that trip, I have seen a little more of the state and realize there really are some hills in Kansas, and there are areas where the prairie is being encouraged to come back.  Bair is optimistic that the land damaged by generations of “I’ll take mine out of the earth and not worry about the future” is reversing and there is hope that the land will be encouraged to heal in the future.

And what has been your experience of going home. Was it like you remembered? Was it disappointing? Did you feel the place shaped you?

The Ogallala Road is one of the more thoughtful memoirs I have read and certainly leave the reader pondering.

Note:  My appreciation to the publisher for providing a review copy of the book, but of course as usual my opinions are strictly my own.

The World in Your Kid’s Computer

Family Travel

Destination: The World

Tool: The International Children’s Digital Library

By Jennifer Close

Roadside Kansas
Even the flatlands of Kansas provide a lesson for the kids. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Close

It is important for me to introduce my children to new places, ways of thinking, cultures and people. It helps broaden their horizons and make them aware of the world around them. I introduce them to things that are different from what we are used to through travel and experiences. Even our recent move from Pensacola, Florida to Denver, Colorado was an eye opening experience from the flat lands of Kansas to the cold weather gear people wear in Denver to other little things we saw along the way. Continue reading The World in Your Kid’s Computer

Truman Capote and A Road Trip to an Ordinary State: Kansas

The Great American Road Trip

Destination: Kansas

Book and Movie: Book: In Cold Blood:A True Account of a Multiple Murder and its Consequences by Truman Capote (1965) and movie, In Cold Blood,  written and directed  by Richard Brooks (1967)

Truman Capote's Kansas
Kansas, Photographer Adam Sparks

The first thing you notice about Kansas is the ordinariness of it. The road rolls over flat land. Ahead a tall rectangle grows larger and larger as you approach a small town with its grain elevator standing sentry along the railroad track–a beat-up red pick-up truck across the street hunkered down in front to the Cafe, paint faded by the uninterrupted wind.

As the grain elevator shrinks in the rear view mirror, another appears on the horizon and your car  counts the rosary of grain elevators as it crosses the state.

That was the view of Kansas that my family and I had each summer as we traveled back and forth across the continent.  To be fair, we did not see some of the prettier parts of the state, and that was in the days before the prairie lands were being restored here and there, but still, Kansas represents “ordinary.”

In 1959, a  flashy, eccentric New York writer, reading about a murder case, saw the irony of a brutal murder in an ordinary American community. Truman Capote wanted to tell the story of the murder of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas as a true crime story.  He wanted to let the people who knew the family, the local law enforcement officers, and finally the perpetrators to become the characters.

His book, In Cold Blood ,  made as much news as the murder. Truman Capote broke new ground with this non-fiction novel, a form that was adopted by others like Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, who became known as New Journalists in the following years. I clearly recall the hubbub around the publication of this book, that I could not wait to read. Since literary non-fiction has become a common genre, younger readers are probably wondering what all the fuss was about, but Capote displayed true genius in combining meticulous reporting, extensive use of direct quotation and the depiction of ordinary lives worthy of Greek tragedy. His art came in the arrangement of the revelations, and he occasionally had to make up some details and decide what to leave out.

However, when interviewed by George Plimpton, Capote denied that he departed from truth. “One doesn’t spend almost six years on a book, the point of which is actual accuracy, and then give way to minor distortions.  All of it is reconstructed from the evidence of witnesses.”

Director and Screenwriter Richard Brooks displayed equal genius in converting the book to a black and white “semi-documentary.” He cast actors who physically resembled the real characters. Thank goodness Paul Newman and Robert Redford  were not available. He used relative unknowns Robert Blake as Perry Smith and Scott Wilson as Richard (Dick) Hickcock.

Brooks’ enhanced the reality of the story- telling with music by Quincy Jones, artful cuts that emphasized the parallels in the lives of victims and perpetrators, and judicious use of the most telling details and dialogue from Truman Capote’s book. He is true to Capote’s sympathetic portrayal of the murderers, and we learn more about them than the victims. The main question Capote tried to answer in the book, “How could anyone kill in cold blood?”, reveals emotionally damaged criminals, but also, in the view of the two writers, an ethically questionable state.

Above all, he used light so that it enhances the mood and helps tell the story.  In one scene, Perry Smith, in his cell on death row, remembers his earlier life.   A light comes through the window, illuminating the raindrops rolling down the glass, and reflected on his face. As he tells his story, his whole face seems to weep. Credit for the beautiful lighting goes to cinematographer Conrad Hall.

The movie is set in the actual house, on the roads, in the courthouse, the cafes and the prison where the real scenes took place, and you can see them when you visit Holcomb KS. Even the criminals’ road trip to Mexico and back was filmed on actual locations.

This may not be an example of a movie and a book that make you want to travel, but they do convey the reality of an ordinary state.

Travel Road combined two states in this post recommending road music for Nebraska and Kansas from Music Road. Definitely not as spooky as the sound track for In Cold Blood the movie.  The lovely picture above comes from flicker with a Creative Commons license.

Kansans may not appreciate being labeled “ordinary.”  What are your experiences of Kansas? Were you expecting Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz?