Ten books every Kansan should read. Sorry, Dorothy.

January 9, 2022 3:33 am

Caroline Fraser’s biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, a Pulitzer winner, is among columnist Max McCoy’s list of 10 books every Kansan should read. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

There must be 6,000 books in our house on Constitution Street, and they overflow from shelves as if they were multiplying on their own. They represent the cultural life of a pair of individuals who separately immersed themselves from an early age in literature and, eventually, came together as a couple in an explosion of books. The many bookcases in the house don’t offer nearly enough shelf space to contain them all, so the titles gather in piles on the kitchen table, around beds, and cover just about any flat space available. There is no system to the madness other than what was most recently at hand, what was most recently needed for research, what was the most recent object of our curiosity.

Let me offer a correction.

There is no system to my literary madness. I’m the one who piles up books like knowledge dominoes around the spaces where I eat, sleep, and work. Kim has bookcases devoted to subjects, carefully thought out and curated into her own idiosyncratic library. There are bookcases devoted to popular culture, the Vietnam War, world religions. Biography, for example, covers Henry Adams and Bruce Springsteen and Laura Ingalls Wilder. There’s a separate section for the object of her political fascination and revulsion, Richard Nixon. Oh, I have grouped some topics together — Mark Twain studies, for example, or Fortean subjects — but in the main my books tend to resemble the order in which I’ve read them.

Another difference is that while I have always had an aversion to writing in books, regarding it as something akin to vandalism (although I will sometimes pitch them across the room), Kim scribbles marginalia as she reads. In one book, for example, she has written in ink, “As much a biography of a relationship as of a person, Fraser clarifies at last the status and authenticity of the ‘Little House’ books novels.”

We have read most of the books in our collection, too, and the ones we haven’t read are on the wait list. Being a native Kansan, my reading since childhood has been heavily slanted toward books that have some connection to my home state. Because we’re nearing Kansas Day (Jan. 29), it seems appropriate to offer a list of titles about the Sunflower State. Call it 10 books every Kansan should read.

There are other lists of Kansas books, including a readers’ choice compiled in 2011 by the State Library for the state’s sesquicentennial. A “Map of Kansas Literature” has been compiled by students in Thomas Fox Averill’s course at Washburn University. But my list is based on my own reading, and it represents what I think others should understand about Kansas, and what Kansans should understand about ourselves. Because I have limited the list to 10 works, I’m leaving out many expected and some deserving titles. You will not find L. Frank Baum here. But this is my list; you may salt your own list to taste.

My recommendations:

1. “A Choice of Weapons”

This autobiography of Gordon Parks, first published in 1966, offers an unflinching account of growing up poor in a Black family in Kansas. The first line of the first chapter is haunting: “The full meaning of my mother’s death had settled over me before they had lowered her into the grave.” Parks would leave Kansas in 1928, at the age of 16, as his big family in Fort Scott broke apart after his mother’s burial, but Kansas — the stark and beautiful landscapes, and the stark and brutal racism — would stay with him for life. Parks would soon pick up a camera, his choice of weapon, rather than a gun or a knife, as he had seen others turn to. As a photojournalist, he would shoot for the Farm Security Administration and Life magazine and fight racism with his talent. As a filmmaker, he would direct 1971’s “Shaft,” which gave American cinema a new genre. But it’s his renderings of the Kansas he knew, in his autobiographies and the novel (and later film) “The Learning Tree,” that give us the best understanding of Parks and the state in which he grew up.


2. “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”

In 2004, Thomas Frank gave us a glimpse of the future. Subtitled “How Conservatives Won the Heart of America,” Frank declares that American politics is all about how people get their fundamental interests wrong. It’s a kind of derangement, and that derangement keeps working-class folks on the Great Plains impoverished while feeding cash to monied interests that ought to be the natural enemy of blue-collar workers. A native Kansan, Frank was unsparing in his criticism of conservatives. But he didn’t see everything. The book seems almost quaint now because there’s no talk of identity politics. He did not predict Trump. In his 2016 book, “Listen, Liberal,” Frank turns his wrath on Democrats as well, making a case that the party of the people have now abandoned them.


3. “In Cold Blood”

This 1966 account of the murder of the Clutter family at Holcomb became a national sensation and gave us the “true crime” book as we know it today. It has also spawned several movies, based on the book itself and of its author, Truman Capote. Capote was a novelist and New Yorker writer who came to Kansas with his friend, Harper Lee, to do field research about murder in the heartland. He blurred some facts and may have intentionally manipulated the emotions of at least one of the killers, who were executed by hanging at the state prison at Lansing. Despite its journalistic faults, the “nonfiction novel” holds a mirror to the Kansas character, making us take a look at our ideas of community, family, violence, and punishment.


4. “Dust”

In 1921, the writing team of Marcet and Emanuel Haldeman-Julius published a psychological novel about hope and despair in southeast Kansas. Largely forgotten today, the work was regarded as a “big” novel in an era of big novels. Marcet Haldeman was the feminist daughter of a wealthy (and conventional Midwestern) family in Girard. Emanual Julius was descended from Jewish refugees from Russian, and he had come to Girard in 1915 to work on the Socialist newspaper, “The Appeal to Reason.” Their marriage was remarkable in many ways, but their literary work together was probably the best of it. Although Haldeman-Julius is better known for the Little Blue Books, the first mass market paperbacks, “Dust” captures a time when survival was intimately connected to the land.


5. “The Last Cattle Drive”

Any list of Kansas books must include a western, and this quirky tale, published in 1977, is hard to beat. Apologies to all of my friends who write westerns. Robert Day’s novel was a bestseller and Book-of-the-Month Club selection and is oddly affecting with its humor and affection for its characters. The premise is that a cantankerous old rancher gathers a group of misfits to drive 250 head of cattle from a ranch near Hays to modern-day Kansas City. Along the way, they pass iconic Kansas sites, including the Garden of Eden at Lucas. “I had never been in a place where the weather had so much to do with the lives of the people who worked,” the narrator, who comes here to teach school, says.


6. “No Place Like Home”

Subtitled “Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas,” this 2018 title by C.J. Janovy gives us ground-level truth about the fight for civil rights for a community that finds itself in particularly hostile territory. If you’re a Kansan, you’ll probably recognize some of the scenes Janovy describes, such as the Rainbow House across from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka. This is an important book about a serious topic, and Janovy uses great care in her reporting. But beyond her skill as a journalist, Janovy’s unerring sense of decency and compassion makes this book shine. You will feel better for having read it. Also, I should note, Janovy is a friend of mine and former Reflector opinion editor. But this is my list, and I get to choose.


7. “The Last Wild Places of Kansas”

OK, another book by a friend. But this one, too, deserves to be on any list of Kansas books. Released in 2016, this book is the closest thing the Sunflower State has to “Walden.” It’s a meditation on all things wild and a tireless exploration by author George Frazier of those places we know must be out there but few of us ever seek out. Frazier, a software engineer from Johnson County, spent three years exploring the hidden corners of the state. Here’s a taste of what Frazier has to offer: “Whether it fits our national character or not,” he writes, “much of American history is gathered in the grass, strewn haphazardly behind old barns and in fields, cached in undiscovered archaeological sites and in ghost towns, and harbored in the little clumps of wilderness that still remain.”


8. “The Now”

Albert Goldbarth writes poetry for those of us who give a damn. He’s the only poet to have won the National Book Critics Circle award twice, and this 2019 collection again proves that what he writes matters. I don’t know a damn thing about poetry, but I know that when I read Goldbarth, I hear music. My favorite of the collection? “gO,” perhaps for this phrase alone: “the sexthrill scree of gooseflesh.” And a line in another poem where he notes that 34 seconds after the title credits begin to roll in “Cheyenne Autumn,” a western set in 1878, you can see jet contrails in the sky. Did I mention Goldbarth lives in Wichita?


9. “Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

This 2017 historical biography by Caroline Fraser traces Wilder’s life from the Indians Wars to the Dust Bowl, and in doing so reveals the author who gave us the “Little House on the Prairie” books.

One of her subject’s earliest memories, Fraser says, was of “gazing through the keyhole opening of cinched canvas covering of her family’s wagon” as they made their way across the prairie from Missouri to Kansas. The book is about the national mythology of self-reliance, and it won the Pulitzer Prize.


10. “PrairyErth”

William Least-Heat Moon spent a lot of time stamping around Chase County and talking to the locals, and the result is this book published in 1991, which he called a “Deep Map.” I had this book on this list, and off, several times, and finally realized it wasn’t because I didn’t think it deserved reading, but because I think the spelling of the title is unduly precious. But that is about the only thing I can object to in the book’s 634 pages. “For years, outsiders have considered this prairie place barren,” Least-Heat Moon writes, “a land of more nothing than just about any other place you could name, but I know I’m not here to explore the vacuousness at the heart of America. I’m only in search of what is here, in the Flint Hills of Kansas.” He has come to find the shadows and the light, and the result is a Kansas chiaroscuro.


So, there you have it. My 10 books for 2022.

Other titles, such as Jim Hoy’s “Flint Hills Cowboys” or “The WPA Guide to 1930s Kansas” are also deserving. But I have to save some titles to write about in the future. “The Wizard of Oz” will likely never make any of my lists, unless it’s a movie list.

Have your own favorites? Make your own top 10 and share it. That’s the great thing about books: The more we read them, talk about them, even throw them across the room, the more we are participating in a shared literary culture.

Good reading.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than 20 books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.