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Best Books by State: Nebraska

By Adrienne Rivera. Feb 21, 2023. 10:07 AM.

Topics: Pulitzer Prize, American Literature, Movie Tie-Ins

Today we continue our Best Books by State series by looking at some books set in Nebraska. Nebraska was once a frontier country, considered the gateway to the American West. The Midwestern state was historically home to many Native American tribes and is part of numerous historical trails once used to traverse the western frontier. The Great Plains state is now an agricultural center and home to large cities. Today we examine some notable books and short stories set in Nebraska as we continue our literary road trip through America:

One of Ours by Willa Cather

willa catherPerhaps Nebraska's most famous author, Willa Cather, wrote portrayals of life in the Great Plains. Cather's most famous novels include O, Pioneers!, My Antonia and One of Ours, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. One of Ours tells the story of the son of a successful Nebraska farmer in the early twentieth century. While many of Cather's novels are celebrated and beloved pictures of Nebraska, Toni Morrison provides a crucial examination of some of the problematic depictions of race in her later novels in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination. The following excerpts from One of Ours offer illustrations of the author's home state:

The forest rose about this open glade like an amphitheater in golden terraces of horsechestnut and beech. The big nuts dropped velvety and brown, as if they had been soaked in oil, and disappeared in the dry leaves below. Little black yew trees, that had not been visible in the green of summer, stood out among the curly yellow brakes. Through the grey netting of the beech twigs, stiff holly bushes glittered.


The sun was like a great visiting presence that stimulated and took it's due from all animal energy. When it flung wide it's cloak and stepped down over the edge of the fields at evening, it left behind it a spent and exhausted world.

Night Shift by Stephen King

Notable for his frequent use of a Maine setting, Stephen King might not be an obvious candidate for writing one of the best books set in Nebraska. However, one of his most famous short stories, which has since been adapted into eleven films, is set in the lonely small towns and corn fields of the rural parts of the state. Collected in Night Shift, King's short story “Children of the Corn” details the harrowing experience of a couple who find a body and become lost in the corn.

He turned the ignition off and got out. The wind rustled softly through the growing man-high corn, making a weird sound like respiration. Vicky was standing over the bundle of rags now, and he could hear her sobbing.

He was halfway between the car and where she stood, and something caught his eye on the left, a gaudy splash of red amid all the green, as bright as barn paint.

He stopped, looking directly into the corn. He found himself thinking (anything to untrack from those rags that did not rag) that it must have been a fantastically good growing season for corn. It grew close together, almost ready to bear. You could plunge into those neat, shaded rows and spend a day trying to find your way out again. But the neatness was broken here. Several tall cornstalks had been broken and leaned askew. And what was that further back in the shadows?

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

LarryMcMurtry_LonesomeDoveWhile the town of Lonesome Dove is in Texas, Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning Western takes us through the American frontier, spending much of its time in the Great Plains state of Nebraska, where a character's beloved lives and is waiting. Lonesome Dove was adapted into a hit miniseries in 1989.

The eastern sky was red as coals in a forge, lighting up the flats along the river. Dew had wet a million needles of the chaparral, and when the rim of the sun edged over the horizon, the chaparral seemed to be spotted with diamonds. A bush in the backyard was filled with little rainbows as the sun touched the dew.

It was tribute enough to sunup that it could make even chaparral bushes look beautiful, Augustus thought, and he watched the process happily, knowing it would only last a few minutes. The sun spread reddish-gold light through the shining bushes, among which a few goats wandered, bleating. Even when the sun rose above the low bluffs to the south, a layer of light lingered for a bit at the level of the chaparral as if independent of its source. The sun lifted clear, like an immense coin. The dew quickly died, and the light that filled the bushes like red dirt dispersed, leaving clear, slightly bluish air.

Adrienne Rivera
Adrienne Rivera received her MFA in fiction from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She currently lives in southern Indiana.


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