NEWS for North Dakotans
Agriculture Communication, North Dakota State University
7 Morrill Hall, Fargo, ND 58105-5665
March 16, 2000
Tom Isern, Professor of History
North Dakota State University
©2000 Plains Folk
Recently I received a note from a woman who grew up on the northern plains. She now lives in Kentucky and confesses to "a strong case of homesickness." She asks if I could send her a Great Plains reading list. Her request reminds me to do something I've been intending to for a long time.
What follows is my top-10 list for readers interested in the Great Plains. I'm not saying these are the 10 best books ever written about the plains. Every one, though, is a classic, and every one is readable. Go through each of these and afterward you'll have better than the equivalent of a college degree in Great Plains studies. More important, you'll love the reading. I'm arranging the works alphabetically according to author.
"Log of a Cowboy," by Andy Adams. The greatest of all cowboy books, this story of a trail drive, and while a work of fiction, it rings more true than history.
"My Antonia," by Willa Cather. The greatest novel ever written about the plains. No other author combines the realities of life with the romance of the plains so perfectly, and no other author has created a heroine the likes of Antonia.
"Sod and Stubble," by John Ise. The absolute nitty-gritty of homesteading and farm life on the plains. Rosie Ise, mother of the author, emerges as the second-most-memorable female figure in all of plains literature.
"The Last Picture Show," by Larry McMurtry. Forget "Lonesome Dove." It is in "The Last Picture Show" where McMurtry captures the decline and fall of community on the plains in the second half of the 20th century--which explains so much of what we are today.
"Who Has Seen the Wind," by W.O. Mitchell. I still think Mitchell understands more about living on the prairie, the good and bad of it, than any other Canadian author. And he is a genius at seeing things through the eyes of a boy.
"The Way to Rainy Mountain," by N. Scott Momaday. Writers on the Great Plains in the generation after 1950 or so were intent on discovering their personal identities, and that goes as much for Momaday, a Kiowa journeying back to Rainy Mountain, Okla., as for the rest of us.
"Giants in the Earth," by Ole Rolvaag. I don't like this book, but I think everyone who lives on the plains should read it because it explains why so many of us are messed up. (Rolvaag feared that immigrant homesteaders on the plains were in danger of descending into savagery.)
"Old Jules," by Mari Sandoz. Sandoz's biography of her pioneer father in the Nebraska sandhills creates the most fascinating and exasperating hero in the literature of the plains. Old Jules was always "building up the country"--but what a devil to live with.
"Wolf Willow," by Wallace Stegner. For all of you who think a small town on the plains is a great place to grow up--but sometimes have a hard time living there as adults--this is your book.
"The Great Plains," by Walter P. Webb. The heaviest book on the list. Serious historical writing about the plains starts with Webb, from the University of Texas. It's an argumentative book, wherein Webb methodically develops his thesis of adaptation to the plains environment, but fortunately, he's also a master storyteller.
That's my list. Feel free to make your own!
Source: Tom Isern (701) 231-8339
Editor: Dean Hulse (701) 231-6136
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