Contemporary views of Kansas have largely been shaped by outsiders, non-Kansas natives who produced popular books and movies about the state. Such perspectives have their place, but Commentator Rex Buchanan says it's refreshing to read about Kansas as seen through the eyes of actual residents. And that's just what he did this year when he picked up two different books, written by fellow Kansans.
Commentator Rex Buchanan is director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey. The Lawrence resident is also co-author of the new book, Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills, published by University Press of Kansas.
For a long time I wondered why the best-known depictions of Kansas were by non-Kansans.
The most iconic portrayal of the state is undoubtedly The Wizard of Oz. The movie was made in California, of course, based on a book by L. Frank Baum, who’s from New York. The book In Cold Blood was written by a native of Alabama. (Well, Capote was born in New Orleans, but he grew up in Alabama). More recently, the book PrairyErth, about Chase County in the Flint Hills, was by best-selling author William Least-Heat Moon, who’s from Missouri.
Maybe that’s why it’s good to see two recent books set in Kansas, by Kansans, get some love from the rest of the country. One is non-fiction, the other fiction, but both accurately portray this place as far more complicated than the rest of the world, or maybe even Kansans themselves, appreciate.
Heartland, by Sarah Smarsh, came out last year. It’s a memoir of growing up in the 1980s west of Wichita in a family that’s fighting just to get by. Written as a long letter to a hypothetical unborn child, the book chronicles her escape from poverty, while acknowledging her childhood scars and hard-won knowledge. The book is a testament to her determination, persistence, and support from family and teachers, capturing a wistful ambivalence about a past that she’s glad to escape, but can’t, or won’t, leave behind.
The other book is more recent. Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School is a novel, mainly about growing up in Topeka in the 1990s. It’s showing up on all sorts of “best of” lists for 2019, and for good reason. Lerner describes an urban adolescence, at least by Kansas standards, as the son of psychologists. It’s a complex, compelling story, written in the elegant, wonderful language that comes naturally from a poet like Lerner.
I don’t think it’s any accident that both of these books are set in a time when Kansas was growing more conservative politically, trying to figure out its own identity as a largely rural state while becoming more and more urban. In Smarsh’s world, farming is increasingly incidental to her family’s existence. In Lerner’s, farming makes almost no appearance at all.
Taken together, these books provide the rest of the country with a faithful portrait of some of the state’s people and places, problems and all. Folks who grow up in Kansas deal with many of the same issues as people in the rest of the country--poverty, drugs, families that don’t always get along. But the growing-up these authors describe is also, at least in part, specific to this place.& The geography of Kansas features prominently in both books.
Maybe that’s an unrecognized, but important contribution of these two books. To explain who we are, how this place affects us, not only to the rest of the world, but even to ourselves.
It’s good that a couple of Kansans have caught the country’s attention through serious books about themselves and the place they come from, including the things that set us apart from every place else.
Because maybe, just maybe, there really is no place like Kansas.