“The Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center celebrates the life and literature of Mari Sandoz and the culture of the High Plains through the acquisition, preservation, display, and interpretation of archival materials, records, documents, books, specimens, and artifacts.” The Center is open Monday-Friday, 8:00 to Noon and 1:00 to 4:00; and Saturday, 9:00 – Noon and 1:00 to 4:00. For additional information, visit The Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center website.
O Pioneers!, by Willa Cather (various editions; first published in 1913)
You’ll want to visit, to see, Willa Cather’s Nebraska after reading O Pioneers!. Cather transports readers to the early 1900s, from the pioneers' initial attempts to tame the prairie, through their joys and tragedies, successes and failures. Memorable characters fill the pages, particularly the main character, Swedish immigrant Alexandra Bergson, who we first meet as a teenager and follow as she inherits and then struggles to make the family farm a success. If you can travel to Red Cloud, Nebraska, Cather’s home for much of her youth and the inspiration for the fictional Hanover in the novel, take O Pioneers! with you and read it in place. It’s surely one of the great “bookpaths.”
They drove westward toward Norway Creek, and toward a big white house that stood on a hill, several miles across the fields. There were so many sheds and outbuildings grouped about it that the place looked not unlike a tiny village. A stranger, approaching it, could not help noticing the beauty and fruitfulness of the outlying fields. There was something individual about the great farm, a most unusual trimness and care for detail. On either side of the road, for a mile before you reached the foot of the hill, stood tall osage orange hedges, their gloss green marking off the yellow fields. South of the hill, in a low, sheltered swale, surrounded by a mulberry hedge, was the orchard, its fruit trees knee-deep in timothy grass. Any one thereabouts would have told you that this was one of the richest farms on the Divide, and that the farmer was a woman, Alexandra Bergson. – from O Pioneers!, by Willa Cather
World-famous artist and author of the classic, The Art Spirit, Robert Henri was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on
June 25, 1865. In 1873, he moved with his family to Cozad, the Nebraska town they founded and resided in until moving to New York City in 1883. Cozad celebrates Henri at the Robert Henri Museum. The museum is open Memorial Day weekend through September 30th, Monday through Saturday, 10:00 to 5:00. For additional information, visit the Robert Henri Museum website.
In Willa Cather’s My Ántonia, readers follow the life of Ántonia Shimerda from childhood into middle age through the memories of the story’s narrator, Jim Burden. The daughter of Bohemian immigrants, Ántonia’s story of hardship and triumph connects readers with the immigrant experience on the Nebraska prairie in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.
In addition to characters pulled from Cather’s memory, so, too, is the setting remembered from her childhood. In My Ántonia, Black Hawk becomes the fictionalized Red Cloud, while Cather’s descriptions of the surrounding prairie and farmland evoke a landscape at once beautiful and forbidding.
One of the great pleasures of literary travel is a pilgrimage to Red Cloud and the surrounding area, to “Cather Land” as it’s called by The Cather Foundation. Readers of My Ántonia will be particularly enriched by the journey. Sites in Red Cloud, such as St. Juliana Falconieri Catholic Church and The Farmers and Merchants Bank, recall scenes from the novel. Most touching of all, however, is the farmstead of Annie Pavelka, the inspiration for Ántonia, several miles from town.
Last summer I happened to be crossing the plains of Iowa in a season of intense heat, and it was my good fortune to have for a traveling companion James Quayle Burden – Jim Burden, as we still call him in the West. He and I are old friends – we grew up together in the same Nebraska town – and we had much to say to each other. While the train flashed through never-ending miles of ripe wheat, by country towns and bright-flowered pastures and oak groves wilting in the sun, we sat in the observation car, where the woodwork was hot to the touch and red dust lay deep over everything. The dust and heat, the burning wind, reminded us of many things. We were talking about what it is like to spend one’s childhood in little towns like these, 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 small of strong weeds and heavy harvests; blustery winters with little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and gray as sheet-iron. We agreed that no one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it. It was a kind of freemasonary, we said. – from My Ántonia, by Willa Cather
“…my life is rich with happenings. For example, a bat like a small black rag has been fluttering back and forth through the yard light all evening, harvesting the stars of tiny moths, catching one tiny star in its teeth with each pass. They jerkily fly this way and that, but they can’t escape this hungry little piece of darkness. Local wonders.” – from Local Wonders : Seasons in the Bohemian Alps, by Ted Kooser
Local Wonders : Seasons in the Bohemian Alps, by Ted Kooser (Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 2002 hardback, 2004 paperback)
About seventy miles in from the eastern edge of the state is a north-south range of low hills known with a wink as the Bohemian Alps. These ‘alps,’ which in the late 1870s began to be settled by Czech and German immigrants from that region of central Europe once known as Bohemia, run about forty miles north and south and five or six miles east and west. No more than a hundred feet from bottom to top, they’re made up of silty clay and gravelly glacial till with small red boulders that look like uncooked pot roasts. – from “Preface,” Local Wonders : Seasons in the Bohemian Alps, by Ted Kooser
Ted Kooser and his wife, Kathleen, “own two of those hills and a wooded crease between.” They have “two dogs, a house, a barn, a chicken house, a corn crib made into a studio for art projects, and a shack where I read and write and look out over a small pond shining in the sun.” In Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps, Kooser follows the seasons, beginning in spring and ending with winter. It’s a book about change, the changing seasons of a person’s life, of a family, of friends and neighbors, as well as the landscape. Kooser, in his sixties, thinks about his own life as a child, young man, father, and the approach of old age. Memories of his family – grandmother, mother, father, sister, aunts, uncles, son – inhabit the pages, as does the landscape as he watches the seasons pass.
Spring comes suddenly as “fat slides of snow plop from the wet tin roofs of turkey sheds;” in summer pickups raise dust, “headed for Branched Oak Lake, three miles east.” Autumn is Kooser’s favorite season. On the first “official morning of autumn, sunny, cool, and breezy, the leaves [are] just beginning to fall” and “the last of the barn swallows have finally set out for the south.” In winter, “a crow shakes loose from a tree and flaps away cawing, five slow croaks like a frozen starter motor” and the “coarse frosty pastures” are “as gray as coyote skins.” It’s no wonder Kooser sees the color of coyote skin in the pasture. Readers learn that coyotes are some of his “closest neighbors,” along with “raccoons, opossums, badgers, field mice, fish, frogs, and birds.” Some “neighbors” reside year round in the Bohemian Alps, while others simply pass through on their yearly migrations, including geese and monarch butterflies “stroll[ing] in the air.”
Local Wonders : Seasons in the Bohemian Alps is a quiet book that has the power to transport readers to this “north-south range of low hills.” The book connects readers to the landscape beginning with the first page. Pack it if you’re traveling to the area, or simply visit vicariously from far away.
The color of the fruit when ripe is sometimes red, sometimes reddish orange, and sometimes the same warm red-into-violet that the thickets turn in midwinter, as if each frozen branch were a long tube storing up color for summer. To the glassy blue of a winter sky, to the black fields, to the smoky gray-brown stands of trees along the creeks, to the white scraps of snowdrifts lying in the furrows, to the gold of grasses and weeds, the plum thickets add their own primary color, a deep burgundy like nothing else on the plains. You could squeeze out only those six hues on a palette and it would immediately look like winter in Nebraska. --from Local Wonders : Seasons in the Bohemian Alps, by Ted Kooser
“So I offer this snapshot of life in the alps north of Garland, Nebraska, on the hot first day of June: a sixty-one-year-old man in bib overalls and a black and white puppy bargaining over a pickup full of sticks and branches, the old guy laughing at the dog and the dog laughing back.” --from Local Wonders : Seasons in the Bohemian Alps, by Ted Kooser