ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DALE SUDERMAN
Elizabeth Black’s first novel, “Buffalo Spirits,” is a yarn about life in western Kansas from the 1950s to the present.
The heroine, Rebecca Kluger, is a plucky girl given to bouts of daydreaming and restlessness raised on a farm near the fictional town of Odyssey who ends up in Chicago in 1968.
I knew the author as Betty Kliewer when she was a fellow Tabor College student and later in Chicago, where she and her husband were journalists. They now live in the Washington, D. C., area.
She has written a love story about the Kansas farm of her childhood. Her narrative is leavened by pain at the loss of the family farm and the rise of agribusiness, but also by her growing realization this land was lost once before by its original inhabitants- the Plains Indian tribes.
She describes using nearly every known means of transportation to get from Chicago to Kansas over a 40-year period. Riding Amtrack at night, flying into Jabarra Airport in Wichita, or Kansas City International with rental cars for the final miles, driving a VW Beatle, stopping for meals at the Lebo Truck stop-all bring back memories of my own travels over the same years using the same routes and modes of transportation.
(The author leaves out hitchhiking and riding Greyhound-methods I found to be stressful and foolhardy ways to approach the plains from Chicago.)
Her portrait of Highway 150 as a scenic bridge across the Flint Hills and the ever-shifting color palate of Kansas grasses is painted as only a homesick native Kansan can.
The author knows the minutia of a mostly vanished rural life-one-room schools, country churches, making a living from the vagaries of dirt farming and the avarice and pettiness of rural landlords.
She also recalls counter-culture life in the crash pads of Chicago in the 1970s, when the vagabond life and interesting jobs and relationships were more important than stable employment.
Black has written a novel comparable to the non-fiction “Prairie Earth” written by William Least Heat Moon. But she writes as a native Kansan struggling with her own personal prairie experience and not as the awed first-time visitor.
There is a paradox in seeing the Kansas landscape from afar-either as the returning native or the astute note-taking Mr. Heat Moon.
Locals who know the land and communities most intimately because they have lived uninterrupted on the same land for generations and breathing the air daily may not see it as clearly as expatriates-or they see it from a perspective that is mostly unspoken and nearly always unwritten.
When Rebecca Kluger compares the Kansas vista to the farmlands of the Loire Valley in France, she sees both in new ways.
“Going home is better than being home,” the heroine muses in her seasonal migrations back to Kansas.
The heroine constantly returns to Kansas, each time digging more deeply into her family’s history and literally into the land itself. Her surprising resolution is based on finally knowing more about Kansas and her western Kansas community, but also about herself.
The author has provided a helpful listing of non-fiction books giving a factual foundation for what may seem, to some, a fanciful interpretation of the European and Native American experiences in Kansas.
Sen. Robert Dole, himself a Kansas expatriate in North Carolina and Washington, D. C., has written a glowing endorsement of “Buffalo Spirits.” Maybe he is a little homesick also.
“Buffalo Spirits” is published by Story Line Press in Ashland, Ore. and is priced at $23.95.
Dale Suderman can be contacted at the following e-mail address: Suderman@ aol.com.