Busy bee
Photo by dreambird used under a Creative Commons license.

Thomas McMahon, McKay’s Bees (Harper Perennial, 1986).
McMahon’s novel centers on Gordon McKay, who leaves Massachusetts for Kansas in 1855 with his new wife and some German carpenters with bees and plans to found a new city on the frontier.  McKay has no strong affinity for abolitionists or slaveowners, though there isn’t much room for neutrality in Bloody Kansas.  This novel is very much of a time, an impressive recreation of historical consciousness.

Google Books provides a preview. Here’s an excerpt. In 1987, Elizabeth Mehren profiled McMahon for the LA Times. Here is McMahon’s obituary in The Harvard Gazette and the obituary from The New York Times. Douglas Bauer (The Boston Globe) is not sure which gives him greater pleasure: finding someone who doesn’t know about the novel and explaining why he must read it immediately, or discovering a fellow admirer and falling into eager conversation about its droll narrative voice and its cast of charming eccentrics and its poetically taut lines. Timothy Foote (Time) says the book is a marvel of brains, brevity and sharp description. Amanda Schaffer (Bookforum) says that McMahon’s overflowing enumeration of human, biological, and mechanical peculiarities—not unlike naturalists’ sketches or case studies—largely defines the novel’s structure, and that his facility for sustained abundance, for quirky upon quirkier detail, accumulates into a tour de force. Dedda Pie calls it absolutely amazing. Phillip Routh thought it went stagnant.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Storms, Osage County, Oklahoma
Photo of Osage County, Okla., by Wade From Oklahoma used under a Creative Commons license.

Richard Rhodes, The Inland Ground (University Press of Kansas, 1991).
A collection of essays generally grounded in Missouri and Kansas. There are pieces here, among others, about: Jesse Howard, the signpainter of Fulton, Mo.; riding a diesel freight train to Gridley, Kan.; Independence, Mo.; the Unity School of Practical Christianity in Lee’s Summit, Mo.; coyote hunting in Portis, Kan.; Kansas City (“Cupcake Land”); a 6,000-acre wheat farm in Beloit, Kan.; Dwight Eisenhower; the I-D Packing Company of Des Moines; the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.; the annual dances of the Osage Indians in Pawhuska, Grayhorse, and Hominy, Okla., with a detour to the Phillips collection in Woolaroc; and the Iowa Writers Workshop in Iowa City. Rhodes substantially revised this book for the 1991 edition, which is the one that I read, and probably the one that you’ll find.

Here is Wikipedia’s page on Rhodes. Here is Rhodes’ website. And here is more about Jesse Howard.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Tallgrass prairie
Photo of Chase County by FarmerFederico used under a Creative Commons license.

William Least Heat-Moon, PrairyErth (A Deep Map): An Epic History of the Tallgrass Prairie Country (Houghton Mifflin, 1991).
A deep survey of Chase County, Kansas, a relatively unpopulated county on the prairie of central Kansas. Better known for Blue Highways, which chronicled travels around America, with this book Heat-Moon delves into a place. Many people driving through Chase County on I-35 would see empty space — the largest town has fewer than 1,000 residents — but Heat-Moon divides it into quadrangles (as per the U.S.G.S. maps) and finds something compelling in each of them: cottonwood trees, abolitionists, a failed cafe that couldn’t sell farmers on eating alfalfa sprouts.

Google Book Search has an excerpt and more. Anita posts a passage. Here are reviews from Paul Theroux (The New York Times), Kathleen O’Neill (Whole Earth Review), John Skow (Time), Mike Habeck, Tom De Haven (Entertainment Weekly), and Kevin S. Forsyth. Gaia gardener and fdmillar gathered some quotations from the book. Scott Stuckey recommends it. Marshal Zeringue recommends it and other Kansas reads. Don Swaim interviewed Heat-Moon in 1991. Jonathan Miles interviewed Heat-Moon for Salon in 1999. Here is information (including a photo essay) about The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Chase County. Here’s an article by Verlyn Klinkenborg from National Geographic about the Flint Hills and the Preserve. The book has inspired music and also this chair.

Buy this book at Amazon.com.