For summer readers interested in literature originating on the Great Plains, there are a number of novels by which one can journey from Canada to Mexico and from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains. Ella Deloria’s Waterlily is a good starting point. Deloria studied with the well-known anthropologist Franz Boas, who encouraged her and Zora Neale Hurston to write about the people they knew best. Deloria turned to her Native American roots in South Dakota for material for her novel written in 1944, but not published until 1988. Waterlily follows the life of a woman steeped in the tribal knowledge and customs of the Lakota.
From South Dakota one can move west into the Montana of Mildred Walker’s Winter Wheat. Like Deloria’s novel, Walker is concerned with a woman’s life on the high plains. In Walker’s book, the main character is the daughter of a New Englander who met his wife in Russia during WWI. After the war, the family moved to Eastern Montana, where they struggle to make a life as wheat farmers. Winter Wheat explores the maturation of a young woman as she sorts out her relationship with her mother, grieves a boyfriend lost at war, and copes with university life far from home.
Philip Kimball’s 1984 work, Harvesting Ballads, on the other hand, is a picaresque novel about a teenager who takes to the road with a combine crew to follow the wheat harvest from his home in Oklahoma to South Dakota, with stops all along the way. The novel also includes a complex set of family relationships, a fascinating study of Native American history in the Oklahoma territory, and a concern for the ecological well being of the land itself.
Like any journey on the western plains, there is a lot of ground to cover when exploring the literary territory of plains novels. In Nebraska one can visit Tom McNeal’s Goodnight, Nebraska set in and around Hay Springs or Mari Sandoz’s Old Jules, a biographical novel about the author’s pioneer father. Northeastern Colorado is the locale of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong. In Wyoming, Gretel Ehrlich’s Heart Mountain depicts the world of a WWII Japanese internment camp near Sheridan. Robert Day’s The Last Cattle Drive is a humorous satire of the myth of the American West, in which a contrary Kansas rancher sets out to drive his contrary cattle herd east (not west) to market in Kansas City. And it is always rewarding to revisit Thalia, the decaying Texas town in Larry McMurtry’s classic tale of the 1950s, The Last Picture Show.
Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, set among the Hispanic population of New Mexico, follows a boy who is finding his own way between his father’s family of restless vaqueros and his mother’s family of farmers; between his mother’s devout Catholicism and his father’s agnosticism; and between the myths and legends of the regions and his own creativity.
Finally, one may close the circle by returning to Native American life in contemporary North Dakota where Louise Erdrich follows the generations of the Pillager family in her epic trilogy, The Beet Queen, The Bingo Palace, and Love Medicine.
Ed. Note: The Plains Humanities Alliance at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln recently previewed the Great Books of the Great Plains Web site at <http://libr.unl.edu:2000/plains/bibs/index.html>, a bibliography of books about life on the Great Plains.