Not Just Any Land: A Personal and Literary Journey into the American Grasslands
by John Price, University of Nebraska Press, 2004, ISBN: 0-8032-3707-3
Reviewed by David Bristow

“Like many born in the Midwest, I had given little thought to committing to the place where I grew up,” writes University of Nebraska at Omaha professor John Price, adding that he “had, in fact, always wanted to leave. Sometimes it felt as if I were already gone, a ghost in my own house. What was the source of that inner exile?”

Not Just Any Land is a curious and enjoyable blend of diverse elements. It is partly a book of nature, a quest to create “a new connection to my home landscape… a grasslands bioregion I’d lived in all my life but never seen, never known.” It is partly a literary survey, with extended interviews with influential Great Plains writers Linda Hasselstrom, William Least Heat-Moon, Dan O’Brien, and Mary Swander. And though it is the work of an English professor (and was begun, in fact, as the work of a graduate student), it is more memoir than scholarly treatise — a series of physical journeys to remote corners of the prairie states, and a more personal journey of self-discovery and a growing sense of place.

For Price, the regional writers he admires are the ones who have “become an example of not only the struggle to find self-recognition in this endangered, threadbare place but also the struggle to articulate for others what it is that the land demands of us in our daily lives: the nature of responsibility.” Reconnecting with the nature of the prairies is a large part of what allows him, at last, to feel at home.

Not Just Any Land
Mark Dunn Plays with Words
by Barbara Rixstine

If you’ve not yet found time for the deft and dark-edged humor of Mark Dunn, add him to the list of must-reads for this year. Dunn has offered us three novels so far–Ella Minnow Pea: a Novel in Letters (2002), Welcome to Higby (2003), and last year’s Ibid: A Life, a Novel in Footnotes.

Start with Dunn’s first book, Ella Minnow Pea. (Sound it out.) Young Ella lives in Nollop, an America-like country named after its native son Nevin Nollop, who created, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” For complicated reasons, Nollop’s council decides to forbid the use of certain letters, more each day. Only by creating another sentence of thirty-two letters or less, using the entire alphabet, can inhabitants throw off the arrogant mantle of illiteracy thrown over them. Young Ella takes up that task, and the book details her progress, as well as the town’s, in a series of letters. It’s a compelling journey, well-told with sound-alikes and creative spellings, sure to interest the word lover.

Welcome to Higby is more of a mainstream novel, detailing the adventures of a variety of strong characters living in the small town of Higby in northern Mississippi. Higbyites have a number of strange quirks, all of which work with their friends’ and relatives’ strange quirks in a very humane and witty send-up of the Southern small town.

By the time this reviewer got to Ibid: A Life I was prepared for anything, and wasn’t disappointed. In Ibid, Dunn creates another strange book premise: himself as the biographer of three-legged Jonathan Blashette, former circus employee, owner of the Dandy-de-Odor-o men’s deodorant company, and humanitarian. In this creative set-up, the only copy of the biography has been accidentally destroyed, leaving only its footnotes, out of which Ibid is formed. Although crude at times, Dunn’s humor is as sharp as always and is filled with pop culture references and historical notes, much like the Woody Allen movies Zelig and Radio Days, which Dunn credits at the end.

I still prefer Ella Minnow Pea, but Ibid has its moments too.

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