Plains Folk

Dream Team

This is a good summer. I’m spending it with old friends, ones I never get tired of. They tell the same old stories again and again, and somehow I just like them better and better.

I’ll explain. For the fifth time, this summer of 2008, I have the privilege of leading a seminar for the National Endowment for the Humanities. The subject is “The Great Plains from Texas to Saskatchewan: Place, Memory, Identity.” It’s a summer seminar for school teachers, fifteen master teachers from across the United States, selected by competitive application. These aren’t the old friends I was talking about, though; these are new friends.

The old friends are Walter P. Webb, author of The Great Plains; Willa Cather, author of My Antonia; Wallace Stegner, author of Wolf Willow; and N. Scott Momaday, author of The Way to Rainy Mountain. It’s common for critics to publish suggestions for summer reading. As summer reading lists go, if you’re from the plains, then the one I just gave is the dream team.

Start with The Great Plains, Walter Webb’s history, published in 1931. Its main idea is pretty simple: the plains are a hard country, level, treeless, and semiarid, a country that marked every person who came here and shaped the civilization that evolved here. Webb sometimes comes across as bigoted today—his Indians are savages, and he knows less about women than a Norwegian bachelor farmer—but his main idea has power, and he knows how to tell a story. There’s actually a bronze statue of old Webb in Austin, where he taught at the University of Texas.

Then go on to Cather and Antonia. Readers adore Cather because of her lyric descriptions of the prairie landscapes and her compelling portraits of female characters, such as Antonia the immigrant girl. I love her, too, because she refused to write the way she was supposed to—critics in her day said her novels were not proper novels—and because however long she lived back east, she kept coming back to Red Cloud, Nebraska, her girlhood home. She was not one of those writers who thought she was too good for, or misunderstood by, the folks back home.

As for Stegner, and as for Wolf Willow, which is supposed to be his memoir, I love them for their devious genius. Stegner is a sort of a saint to many western Americans, especially those with environmentalist sentiments, who regard his writings as holy writ. A close look at his boyhood in Eastend, Saskatchewan, however, and at what he represented to have been his boyhood in Wolf Willow, reveals how sneaky he was—messing with the facts, manipulating the story and his readers. I didn’t like Stegner much as a saint, but as a sinner like the rest of us—only a really talented sinner—I like him a lot.

And then Momaday, and his poetic memoir, The Way to Rainy Mountain. In a literal way, I do know the way to Rainy Mountain, in the Kiowa country of western Oklahoma. I’ve climbed it, as I’ve tramped about Austin, Red Cloud, and Eastend. Finding your way through Momaday’s book, though, is something you have to do for yourself. You have to give yourself over to the book, the same as Momaday said you have to give yourself over to the land.

And—I get to do it with fifteen new friends, all of whom have their own ideas about my old friends. This is gonna be good. Read along, if you’ve a mind to.

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