Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Flyover People conjures memories of a Kansas childhood

We’re 10 days into May and I am only now, with this post, wrapping up all the books I read through the end of April.  I’ve dispatched four books so far in May and I will get to them.

Warning to unwary readers: A substantial number of endnotes accompany this post.

Book 51: Flyover People by Cheryl Unruh

Some books are personally meaningful because of their content. They speak to us. Inspire us. Instruct us. 

We treasure others books because they were a gift from someone special. To pick up the book is to instantly conjure the giftgiver.

Flyover People by Cheryl Unruh is meaningful on both counts.

The book, subtitled Life on the Ground in a Rectangular State1, was a gift from a great friend, a man who is as close to me as my own brothers. A book from him always warrants my attention.

Flyover People is also special because it is about my home state of Kansas. It is a collection of essays – loosely gathered under such as headings as Seasons, Nature, Looking Back, Small Towns and Earth and Sky – that Unruh2 originally wrote for her column in The Emporia Gazette.3 Her column, whose subject is almost always Kansas, makes Unruh a latter day Peggy of the Flint Hills4.

Unruh grew up in the small Kansas town of Pawnee Rock. She is not only a native Kansan, but a true Kansan. I know this because Unruh is one of the few people who finds beauty in the Flint Hills – as do I. 

Most people, speeding through Kansas as they drive from one side of the country to the other, view the state as an unwelcome but necessary span they must traverse. They view the Flint Hills, one of the world’s last remaining tall grass prairies, as bleak and desolate. 

It is neither. But to see its beauty, as with much of Kansas, requires both time and a closer inspection than people are willing to give. Unruh take that time for us. Through her essays, I am able to revisit the state that my wife and I left nine years ago after living there for almost half a century.

Unruh’s essays evoke pleasant memories. She brings to life a place and a people I know so well. In reading Flyover People I recall my childhood in a small Kansas town, my tree house, my parent’s restaurant, my grandparents farm, working the wheat harvest from sunup to sundown, courting my wife, raising our family, working beneath the Capitol dome in Topeka.5

My father and brothers still call Kansas home. My mother, sister and grandparents lie beneath its soil.

My wife and I left Kansas, but it has not left us. Our experiences growing up, the state’s people and its history6, the way it is portrayed in film (I sorta hate Dorothy) shaped us, as did its landscape. There are few trees in Kansas and although is not literally flat it certainly appears to be so. This means Kansans are well acquainted with sunrise and sunset. The horizon is always before us. 

“We are the lucky ones,” Unruh writes, “for every day our eyes rest naturally upon the horizon, that thin line of magic that holds together the heaven and the earth.” 

Kansans are like that landscape. They're open. You see them coming. They’ll give you a hearty wave and warm hello whether they know you or not. They are generous, big-hearted people who know that the true antidote to hardship7 is a helping hand. They are people who care deeply about family and friends. They are people of vision, but practical too. Heads in the sky8, feet planted firmly in the deep, rich soil.

Unruh’s essays reminded me of all this. Her essays provide a rich experience for Kansans, wherever they now live. Yet it isn't necessary to be a Kansan to enjoy Unruh's writing. Her essays will be appreciated by anyone who has a deep understanding of the importance of place, an awareness of how landscape can shape a man or woman.

Flyover People reminded me of who I am and will always be – a Kansan.
1The title and subtitle are a reference to the reality that if you’re not driving through Kansas to get somewhere else, you’re flying over it. We’re not a destination for many. The title also conjures memories of Vern Miller, a latter day Carrie Nation, who as Attorney General tried to stop airlines from serving alcohol while they flew over the state. The airlines, Miller contended, were in violation of the Kansas liquor laws.

2Unruh is a graduate of the University of Kansas as am I. We both have degrees in English. She also studied education. I also took journalism classes. I wonder if Unruh attended Calder Pickett’s History of American Journalism. One of the requirements of the class was to read William Allen White’s autobiography. He was the publisher of the Emporia Gazette.

3Emporia is on the edge of the Kansas Flint Hills. At the turn of the 20th Century, the Gazette was owned and edited by William Allen White, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and confidante of Teddy Roosevelt. Under White’s leadership the Gazette was one arguably the most influential small-town newspaper in the nation.

4Peggy of the Flint Hills was Zula Bennington Greene. Her column appeared in the Topeka Capital-Journal and other Kansas newspapers regularly over a span of 60 years. I once worked as a reporter and editor at the C-J.

5 I worked in the Kansas statehouse for more than a dozen years, serving two secretaries of state and one governor. I think I have been in every inch of that stately building from the basement with its huge limestone walls to the narrow, winding staircase that leads to the top of the dome and a stunning view of Topeka. My wife once wrote and recorded the jingle used by the Kansas Department of Commerce to promote the state.

6 Kansas was a free state in the pre-Civil War days. Our enmity toward Missouri, which emerges these days in a rivalry between the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri, traces to the time when bushwackers from Missouri tinkered with our politics, murdered our citizens and burned our cities. There are many variants on the proper pronunciation of Missouri. I prefer Miz-ery.

7Yes, Kansas is swept by tornadoes in spring, summer and fall. There are few tornadoes in winter, but there are blizzards, sleet and whiteouts. Kansas also experiences drought, heat, humidity and hailstorms of biblical proportions. Settling this land took people of determination. Our state motto is Ad Astra Per Astra -- to the stars through difficulties.  

8Literally. Clyde Tombaugh who discovered Pluto, now referred to as a “dwarf” planet (but not in Kansas I’d wager) grew up in Burdett. Shuttle astronaut Steve Hawley called Salina home. Amelia Earhart was a Kansas girl.


  1. My kids were born in Kansas, and although our time there wasn't long, I absolutely loved the state. The sky just got me, every single time I looked up ...which, in those days, was often.

    I must get this book.

  2. Anonymous11:40 PM

    Never been to Kansas- browsed by here via the Book Blogger Convention site, so I guess I'll meet you there.
    Terrific blog name! Also, I think you read as fast as I do, if the numbers by your posts are any indication. Delightful! Also a little humbling, at first glance... you're reading some heady stuff.

  3. How did I not know you're from Kansas too?! I'm sixth-generation, and I think the Flint Hills ar one of the most beautiful places in the world. My father grew up not far from them, and I always loved the first sight of them when we went to visit my grandpa. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention!