Cold Blood and Dark Places? I’ve a Feeling We’re in Kansas
As Kansas natives, my husband and I have been known to befuddle our neighbors with Kansas Day parties that include crossword puzzles and Kansas-based Jeopardy games with clues about notable Kansans such as Langston Hughes, Buster Keaton, Zasu Pitts, Milton Stone (Doc on Gunsmoke), President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Amelia Earhart, Phog Allen, Bill Kurtis, Gordon Parks, Alan Mulally, and more. When it comes to books set in Kansas, everyone knows L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie (the actual house still stands and is hardly larger than a child’s playhouse!), but in honor of Kansas Day, January 29, here are some memorable Kansas-set novels, contemporary and historical. All titles are also available as audiobooks.
Capote, intrigued by the senseless murder of a farm family, came to western Kansas with his good friend Harper Lee to investigate and then write about the crime, the search for the killers, and their trial. His classic, award-winning “nonfiction novel” paints dramatic character portraits of the killers and the investigators, all of whom he interviewed. I don’t advise reading his re-creation of the crime while alone on a dark and stormy night; 50 years later, it still haunts me.
Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn
While Flynn’s Gone Girl takes place in neighboring Missouri, this earlier and equally chilling novel is set in a small Kansas farm community. When Libby Day was seven, her mother and two sisters were murdered, and her testimony sent her brother to jail. Now, 25 years later, a group of true-crime enthusiasts convince her that what she remembers might not be the whole truth. She revisits the crime—and takes readers with her in flashbacks—in this edgy novel written in lyrical prose and filled with disturbing images.
I had left the Wichita area by 1979, when this darkly comic crime novel is set, and my childhood memories don’t include Wichita’s underbelly—but the mean streets are all recognizable in this singular example of Kansas noir. It’s Christmas Eve, and low-level mobster Charlie Arglist is taking his boss’ money and leaving town for good. First, however, he visits all his old haunts, including the strip clubs he managed, and crashes his ex-family’s holiday celebration. As the evening progresses and the dead bodies accumulate with the snow, his departure seems less and less likely. Not your everyday Christmas tale, but a fine read and an excellent movie starring John Cusak and Billy Bob Thornton, directed by Harold Ramis.
The Virgin of Small Plains, by Nancy Pickard
Pickard evokes a strong sense of place in her depiction of the Kansas Flint Hills, where seasonal storms reflect the changeable Kansas weather and underline the novel’s ominous tone. Both the vividly described winter blizzard and summer tornado ring absolutely true. The dramatic weather intensifies the sense of foreboding as former high-school lovers Abby Reynolds and Mitch Newquist meet again as adults and feel compelled to investigate the murder of a classmate and the subsequent cover-up that separated them years earlier.
The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, by Jane Smiley
Lidie embarks on her adventures in Illinois but ends up in Lawrence, Kansas Territory, in the 1850s. Tomboy Lidie might have seemed an unusual choice for abolitionist Thomas Newton, passing through Quincy on his way west, but her fearlessness and skill with a gun prove just the qualities needed to meet the dangers in Bleeding Kansas. When her husband is killed early in their marriage, she seeks revenge while posing as a man in this bittersweet adventure filled with details of time and place: of battles between anti- and pro-slavery forces, homesteading, and the role of women on the prairie.
Cloudsplitter, by Russell Banks
Although he was born in Connecticut and died in Virginia, John Brown is inextricably associated with Kansas, where he began his crusade in the battles of the anti-slavery Jayhawkers against the pro-slavery Border Ruffians from Missouri. In fact, John Steuart Curry’s famous mural of Brown with arms outstretched, holding a Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other, graces the walls of the Kansas capitol building. Banks’ fictionalized biography of Brown, as related by Brown’s son, Owen, is rich in historical and personal details as well as psychological insights. It delves deeply into Brown’s character while exploring his relationship to his family and his dream of ending slavery. Told partly in letters and written in elegant prose, this darkly atmospheric novel moves at a stately but relentless pace to the disastrous raid on Harpers Ferry and its aftermath.
Doc, by Mary Doria Russell
Russell’s warts-and-all portrait of Doc Holliday presents the man before he became a legend. She chronicles his early years growing up in the South and then places him in Dodge City in 1878. He’s suffering from tuberculosis, and he’s come for his health. During that year, he works as a dentist and gambler and, more importantly, meets other famous western figures such as the Earp brothers and Bat Masterson. There’s not a lot of action in this leisurely character study, but it’s rich in historical and biographical details, as well as a strong sense of place.
The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride.
In contrast to Banks’ serious literary novel about John Brown, McBride’s offering is more inventive and playful, despite the tragic denouement. Henry Shackleford, a 12-year-old slave, heads the cast of colorful characters and narrates this tale of Brown’s activities in Kansas through the debacle at Harpers Ferry and Brown’s death. Henry, mistaken for a girl because of his appearance, becomes Brown’s good-luck charm and offers an often outrageous account of adventures and misadventures in the best tall-tale-telling tradition.
Bleeding Kansas, by Sara Paretsky
Here Paretsky leaves her Chicago-based PI, V. I. Warshawski, and returns to her Kansas roots to write about contemporary Lawrence in a story that draws on historical accounts of the Bleeding Kansas of pre–Civil War days. Intolerance that leads to violence and, ultimately, redemption is the issue here, as old grudges between families that trace their roots back to the town’s settlement reignite, fueled by the divisive political battles in the college town in the 1960s and ‘70s and now by religious fervor. With words, images, and the cadences of midwestern speech, Paretsky paints the landscape of the prairie in this memorable tale.
The Center of Everything, by Laura Moriarty
Politics and social issues in the 1980s frame this compelling coming-of-age story set in a small Kansas town in the center of the state, which is the center of the contiguous 48 states. Spunky Evelyn Bucknow, age 10 when the novel opens and a teenager at its close, observes her single mother’s struggles to keep her family together despite economic hardships. Taken under the wings of controversial teachers who recognize her potential, Evelyn vows not to make the same mistakes. While the vivid descriptions evoke this small-town Kansas community and its residents, the characters and their situations have a universal appeal.