The next stop on our literary journey throughout America in our Top Books by State series is Kansas. This Midwestern state is primarily known for its location in the heart of the Great Plains. While Kansas is one of the country's largest producer of wheat, corn, soybeans, and sorghum, it's not just farmland. The state is home to several metropolitan centers namely Wichita and Kansas City. Today, Kansas is mostly associated with farmland, but at the time of it's entry into the union, the decision of whether or not to be a free or a slave-holding state led to great turmoil, the result of which was the nickname “Bleeding Kansas.” However, Kansas ultimately sided politically with the northern part of the United States, leading to its official state nickname of “The Free State.” Join us as we take a look at two of the best books set in (or mostly in) Kansas:
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
While L. Frank Baum's classic children's novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, takes place primarily in the land of Oz, Kansas is so deeply associated with the story, it has to make our list. That association primarily comes from the famous 1938 film adaptation, The Wizard of Oz, in which Dorothy speaks the famous line: “Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.” The phrase has become an idiom more ingrained in the language than perhaps any other film quote. Though that line technically doesn't appear in Baum's novel or any of the fourteen sequels, it has firmly melded the novel with the state of Kansas to the point that even people who’ve never read or seen either version could probably name the setting.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz starts and ends with Kansas, whether or not the bulk of the story is set there. Dorothy dislikes Kansas, then spends the entirety of her stay in the magical land of Oz wishing for home. See the difference here between Dorothy's views on the state before and after her journey:
In chapter one, we read:
When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached to the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere. Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.
And when Dorothy reflects on her home in Kansas in her discussion with the Scarecrow:
No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Our second book set in Kansas, while much less pleasant than a famous children's novel, is notable for its contribution to the world of literature at large: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.
In Cold Blood is lauded as one of the first nonfiction novels, a novel-length work of nonfiction making use of many of the conventions of traditional novel storytelling. The book tells the story of the attempted robbery and murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959. Due to the incredible work of investigation on the part of Capote, it remains to this day the second most popular true crime book ever written and is credited with popularizing the genre. Besides being adapted into a film of the same name, a biopic about Truman Capote's interviews with the killers, Capote, was released in 2005 staring Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the author. Like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, In Cold Blood paints a picture of a wide and empty Kansas, a slow-moving place where nothing much happens:
The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.”
Then starting home, he walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.
Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.
Read more about Truman Capote in his first appearance on our literary road trip in Top Books by State: Alabama.
Stay tuned! Next month, we'll take a look at some of the amazing books that come from the great state of Kentucky!
Source: The New Yorker