Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Nebraska's 150 Greatest Literary Works Named; Many Set Along Highway 83

The Nebraska Literary Heritage Association, in partnership with the Nebraska State Historical Society and the Nebraska Library Commission, chose my book The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder: And Other True Stories from the Nebraska-Pine Ridge Border Towns for its list of Nebraska books that “represent the best literature produced from Nebraska during the past 150 years” to mark the state’s sesquicentennial in 2017.
Nebraska has a rich literary history with giants such as Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, John G. Neihardt, Wright Morris and 13th Poet Laureate of the United States Ted Kooser among the state’s pantheon of great writers. Their works show up several times on the list.
My book mostly takes place 100 miles to the west of Highway 83, but scrolling down the list of other books chosen, there are several that are set along Highway 83 worth noting. Most of them I have read, and couple I relied upon for The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma.
Here are a few of that I cited in The Last American Highway book:

 Cheyenne Autumn by Mari Sandoz. The Northern Cheyennes’ dramatic escape from the confines of their reservation in Indian Territory in 1878 is an American epic. Two incidents during their journey took place along Highway 83 in Kansas: The Battle of Punished Woman Fork near Lake Scott, and the massacre of the settlers near Oberlin. Both stories are recounted in Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma book. Their journey afterwards in Nebraska took them northwest of the present day road.

The Niobrara: A River Running Through Time by Paul A. Johnsgard. University of Nebraska professor emeritus Johnsgard is the state’s foremost naturalist writer and the Niobrara, perhaps the state’s most scenic river. I relied heavily on this work for the Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma book. Duane Gudgel, proprietor of the Plains Trading Co. bookstore in Valentine also contributed a chapter to this excellent work.

 The Nebraska Sand Hills: The Human Landscape by Charles Barron McIntosh. The University of Nebraska Press produced this plain looking hardcover book without a dust jacket for some reason, but don’t judge a book by the lack of a cover. This is a thorough work on this beautiful and unique landscape. Long out of print, however, the aforementioned Duane at Plains Trading Co. was wise enough to buy up the overstock. Contact the store for copies or go to its website.

An Unspeakable Sadness: The Dispossession of the Nebraska Indians by David Wishart. Take a look at a map of Nebraska and note how many Indian reservations there are. Not many. Most of the nations that called the state their home, including the Pawnees, were sent to Indian Territory. Every Nebraskan should read this book. UNL professor of geography Wishart has a total of three books on the list!

The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin. We all know that many snowstorms in Nebraska are preceded by warm, balmy days. In 1888, school children across the northern plains headed to their one-room school houses without their coats or wearing light jackets. As they headed home that evening, a monster arrived from the north. This story became part of an excerpt on natural disasters I published in this blog.

No Time on My Hands: Grace Snyder as told to Nellie Snyder Yost. A memoir of how the Sand Hills were settled, including the story of my grandmother’s hometown Tryon, and the Highway 83 town of Stapleton. 
Here are two books on the list that are set along Highway 83, but I didn’t use in my writing:

Once Upon a Town: The Story of the North Platte Canteen.
Chicago-based columnist Bob Greene put the remarkable story of the North Platte Canteen on the map for many Americans. During World War II, every train carrying troops that pulled into the station was greeted by a group of mostly women who had baked or cooked dishes for them and spent some time talking with the soldiers in the Union Pacific train depot waiting room. Small towns along Highway 83 and in the Sand Hills would sign up to volunteer for a day. My grandmother Bernice Magnuson was among those who baked cakes and traveled there on Stapleton’s day to host the troops.

 Fighting Liberal: The Autobiography of George W. Norris. Norris, a giant in Washington in both the House and Senate in the first half of the 20th century, called McCook, Nebraska, his home. Travelers can visit his house there.

And finally, anytime someone compiles a subjective list of this nature, there will be some disagreement. That's part of the fun. Here are some Nebraska works I think should have made it, but didn’t.

Red Cloud’s Folk, Spotted Tail’s Folk, A Sioux Chronicle, The Pawnee Indians, Life of George Bent, etc. by George E. Hyde.
How could the committee not name a single book by this Omaha-born and raised writer and amateur historian who devoted his life to recording the history of the Native Americans who called Nebraska home? Hyde corresponded and interviewed participants in the so-called Indian Wars long before most historians cared. Where would we be without these books? His life’s work is all the more remarkable when one takes into account that he was legally blind. Plus, Hyde is simply fun to read. A major oversight. 

Empire on the Platte by Richard Crabb. This excellent 1967 book tells the story of a violent family of Texas cowboys, Print Olive and his brothers, who made their way to the Nebraska prairie to run cattle. They owned most of Custer County at one time. The Olives were the archetypes for the bad guy cowboys portrayed in so many Hollywood westerns. A great history of the cattle drive days before barbed wire.  Long out of print, but highly recommended. 

Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere by Poe Ballentine. Chadron-based author Poe Ballentine wrote an instant classic about his on-again, off-again relationship to the Panhandle town. The first half of the memoir is literally laugh out loud funny, then takes a serious turn as the town is wracked by the gruesome death, perhaps murder, of a mathematics professor. The title alone deserved a spot on the list!

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, and  The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition. Both are available online or in museums, bookstores and gift shops on Hwy 83.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a)

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