1 Plainsong Trilogy (Plainsong, Eventide, Benediction) by Kent Haruf
On completing this beautifully sparse, stripped bare trilogy set in the imagined flatlands town of Holt, Colorado, I was struck by how the Great Plains have been something of a mesmerizing muse for me — much like the Siberian steppe in Russian literature. So, alongside this account of simple, honest farming life in a community somewhere east of Brush on Highway 34, here are a few more Great Plains classics I’ve come across…
2 Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor
If Haruf’s novels evoke anything for me, it is perhaps the languid timelessness of that other mythic Midwest town — Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. Across these gentle stories, Keillor portrayed a Norwegian Lutheran upbringing in the back of beyond with sparkling wit and compassion. In their audio version, read by the author in his smooth, rolling Midwest accent, they were the soundtrack to my adolescence and a schooling in great writing.
3 Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne
Scratch the dusty surface of the Great Plains, and you will quickly unearth an Indian. The Native Americans who were the first people of this land were vanquished an astonishing short time ago, but the last and most tenacious of them — the Comanches — survived with skill and extraordinary bravery. But what sets this book apart is its fascinating detailing of ordinary Comanche day-to-day life, not the set battles with the whites. In it, I saw a more authentic face of the Native American than I’ve found elsewhere.
4 True Grit by Charles Portis
“You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God”
So says Mattie Ross, the young girl who is the heroine of this classic Western set in Arkansas and the Indian Territory of modern-day Oklahoma. The book is a wonderfully self-indulgent read for anyone who’s ever enjoyed a John Buchan or similar adventure story, but it also has, well, the true grit of the American Great Plains about it. I found the book via the great Coen Brothers film starring Jeff Bridges. That was in turn a remake of a 1969 film — one I’ve never seen!
5 Nebraska (2013), directed by Alexander Payne
Now for some film. For anyone who loves the wide open bleakness of Springsteen’s 1982 album, a film with this title is always going to capture the imagination. In the event, it turned out to be one of the best films I’ve watched in years. A touching story of family life in Nebraska and Montana, with lots of humour, some wonderful dialogue and, of course, lots of wide open cinematic space.
6 Certain Women (2016), directed by Kelly Reichardt
This snapshot film follows the lives of three different women in rural Montana. But the one I want to draw your attention to is the story of Jamie, played by Lily Gladstone, a farm hand tending horses alone through a winter outside Belfry, Montana. The town sits on the edge of the Crow Reservation, not far from Bighorn country, and Gladstone herself is of Blackfeet and Nez Perce ancestry. The epic lonesomeness says so much about not only life on the Great Plains, but also the Native American experience.