Written by Art Is Essential

Art Is Essential October 2020

Writers on the art that matters to them.

In the Country I Know by Heart

Matt Miller

Summer is the homesick season if you grew up in the country. The tree-climbing time, the ripe-tomato time, the time of slow evenings on the porch. My homesickness has never quieted below a hum in the ten years since I left my native Nebraska, but summer brings it to a crescendo. So I walk the brick streets of my hometown in July to plunder my parents’ garden and watch my children play with their cousins.

With such a trip impossible in the pandemic, it’s a mercy that I snared Ron Hansen’s short story collection Nebraska from my brother’s shelves on my last visit. Hansen is not the best-known writer to take up my home state, yet the eponymous title story captures my Nebraska better than anything by Willa Cather or Bruce Springsteen. 

The story is less a narrative than a 2,000-word historical walking tour of a representative Nebraskan town. In propulsive, compact paragraphs, Hansen travels from European settlement of the Plains through the railroad era to modern-day when “Everyone is famous in this town. And everyone is necessary,” and life goes on in pickup trucks, churches, thrift shops, and bars. “And yet passing by, and paying attention, an outsider is only aware of what isn’t,” the absence of the cultural life of the cities, even as the life of the place strides on with children playing in the woods, old ladies watering their roses, old men listening to “the train saying Nebraska, Nebraska, Nebraska, Nebraska,” and Mrs. Antoinette Heft, the restaurant owner, smoking Kools, “smelling air as crisp as Oxydol, looking up at stars the Pawnee Indians looked at, hearing the low harmonica of big rigs on the highway, in the town she knows like the palm of her hand, in the country she knows by heart.” 

Though the music of Hansen’s prose is no substitute for the hymnody of home, his story takes me back, as no Zoom call could, to look at the stars and walk the streets of Nebraska.

Matt Miller now lives outside Reeds Spring, Missouri, and online at matt-miller.org.

Ron Hansen ( 1947-) was born in Omaha, Nebraska. He is the author of over twenty books including The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He received the Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters for Nebraska: Stories .

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