Monday, September 5, 2011

Tracy Seeley's Private Prairie Fire

My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas (American Lives)We who live in America’s “flyover country” struggle with outsiders’ broad stereotypes. We’re regularly disparaged as uncultured, uneducated, and backward. I’ve had Californians ask me point blank if Nebraska has electricity and indoor plumbing. Seriously. And few people mock the Heartland more than people who have left the area themselves. Which is why I struggle to decide what to make of Tracy Seeley’s My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas.

Diagnosed with cancer and fresh out of a relationship just after 9/11, Seeley decided to investigate the baker’s dozen addresses listed in her baby book. Why did her family relocate four times in less than two years, and relocate relentlessly before Seeley was old enough to understand? Though she begins in Colorado, her search focuses mostly on the state she tried hardest to expunge from her history: Kansas.

When she left for graduate school in Texas and an academic career on both coasts, Seeley worked hard to suppress her Midland vowels and prairie mannerisms. Texas may have hick mythology, but it has panache that left Kansas with the Dust Bowl. So Seeley is as surprised as anyone when the state she denied for decades proves more of her home than the San Francisco where she’s immersed herself for decades.

Or so she says. Her subtext doesn’t correspond with her thesis. She talks, for instance, about rediscovering houses and neighborhoods which, lingering at the fringes of her consciousness, continue to mold her identity. Each new discovery places a new piece in the jigsaw puzzle of her conflicted childhood, colored by her father’s vague ambitions, her mother’s long-suffering perseverance, and a history of permanent impermanence.

Yet even while embracing her heritage, she describes the Kansas and Colorado landscape as nothing but “wheat, wheat, wheat, wheat, corn,” and calls the ambitious German Lutherans who built cathedrals on the gamble of future population infusions “mad.” She says she finally sees how the Great Plains has produced true culture, even if unrecognized, then characterizes her childhood neighbors by their “beige carpets and plastic hall runners.”

I can’t blame Seeley for this ambivalence. I’ve scarcely met a prairie dweller who doesn’t praise small town life in one breath and cuss the lack of amenities in the next. We openly embrace city slickers’ characterizations of us as hillbillies with the same aggression workers use in slapping back at bosses, yet when people ask where we’re from, we act embarrassed and evade.

Every fall, my regional university receives an infusion of ranchers’ children from rural western Nebraska. Many of them, especially men, insist religiously on wearing their boots, Stetsons, and Wrangler shirts just like home... until they realize that, even in Kearney, Nebraska, we pretend to greater worldliness. By the end of October, farm and ranch wear largely disappears from campus as students race to not be seen as “countrified.”

But while I can’t fault Seeley’s ambivalence, I question why she put it on paper. She yearns to be equally at home in Kansas and California, yet insists on bringing arugula salads and organic tahini to the plains, resisting the beefy diet favored by laborers. Her attitude remains colonial, wanting others to conform to her expectations and making little effort to speak the language of the people she claims as neighbors.

In describing “Children of the Corn,” Stephen King recounts getting lost near Thedford, Nebraska, amid miles of interchangeable, oppresive cornfields. Surely, he says, nothing good comes from such expanses. Notably, he never mentions meeting or speaking with even one Nebraskan. Other horror writers, from Lovecraft and Lord Dunsany to Peter Straub and Clive Barker, bewail the menace urbanites find inherent in the countryside.

On a less horrific note, the British film Cold Comfort Farm features Kate Beckinsale as Flora, a posh Londoner who remakes her country kin in her image. Though intended satirically, Cold Comfort Farm reflects very real attitudes, on both sides of the Atlantic: if them hicks could be as urbane as us, they’d know to leave the farm. No more provincial attitude can I imagine.

Reading this, I may appear to dislike Seeley’s narrative. Not so: it has its redeeming qualities, in its author’s journey of self-discovery, and the struggles she undertakes to rebuild herself after cancer. Yet in achieving these goals, she relies on the same creaky coastal self-infatuation that has kept the Heartland embarrassed by itself for generations.

We who live in the Great Plains deserve to be taken seriously. And we deserve it as much from ourselves as from outsiders.

In the interest of full disclosure, this book is published by a University of Nebraska Press imprint. I teach at a University of Nebraska campus. I received a copy of this book to review, at the publisher's expense, which has not influenced my opinion in any way, and has nothing to do with my professional academic standing.

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