A souvenir postcard, found on the web, says “Don’t think that all the gold/Is treasured in Alaska/For golden corn and Golden Rod/Enrich the state Nebraska.” Goldenrod, named Nebraska’s state flower in 1895, is a drooping profusion of gold that looks an awful lot like a sheaf of wheat. Often mistaken for ragweed, goldenrod is paradoxically the cure for ragweed allergies—a local herbalist taught me how to walk through the prairie in late summer and pick goldenrod at its peak, stuffing the stems into a Mason jar, covering them with Everclear, and letting the medicine cure for six weeks before straining it into bottles and taking a dropperful at a time, as needed. I’ve found the Nebraskan Midwessay to be goldenrod personified: understood only through its oppositional references while its author patiently undoes misconceptions. These essays on the Nebraskan Midwessay may confirm your cliches, but I’d encourage you to look closer: what appears to cause the problem is actually the solution.
The Nebraskan essay is furious at being reduced to a cliché, and yet it is a cliché. I know this because, while editing a collection set along Nebraska’s I-80, I kept marveling at how the author had gestured at all of the cliches of Nebraska while illustrating how close they really are to the truth of existence here. We hate it when you tell us what we already know. We hate it because you’re telling it to us like we don’t already know.
My three daughters were all born in Nebraska, a fact I mention very often because I myself have only lived in Nebraska for fourteen years. Part of being Nebraskan is either loving it or hating it. I love this state, because I chose it. Which makes me less of a Nebraskan, come to think—nearly every homegrown Nebraskan I met when I first moved here was either fixing to leave or wished they could.
Since I’ve been here, the state’s gotten inside my brain, twisting things so I see them like a Nebraskan. I mean, I AM a Nebraskan at this point, living here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. This is my home ground. I write a lot of metaphor about the unofficial symbol of Nebraska, big bluestem, because I love the idea that there is a six-foot deep root system, a me underneath me, anchoring me in place. I say I am from the suburban prairie, because prairie is very Nebraskan, but I am also very aware that I live in the suburbs, in the expanses which are slowly being filled up with Hearthstone Homes. I remember when those former fields were farmed, so I suppose I have been in Nebraska long enough to count.
I describe Omaha, the city I suburb, as ridging the backbone between the Midwest and the West. Our Midwestern sensibilities are on full display in Omaha—it’s a place where you can buy a 3BR/2BA split-level on a quarter acre, built in 1978 and featuring golden oak cabinetry, for under $200,000—but about five miles out of town, the hills drop off and the stretch of sky opens up and you feel the West pulling like a magnet.
But the West is also repelling, straight-line winds rolling all the way from the mountains of Colorado to the hills outskirting Omaha. 60mph gusts are nothing; we get tornado-level winds all the time. The first summer I was in my house, I stood in my dining room and watched my neighbor’s tree, over forty feet tall, crash into another neighbor’s house, taking out a section of gutter. After the gusts were over, I held my infant daughter in my arms and watched as my neighborhood came out of the woodwork, bringing chainsaws, to help cut the tree down to a manageable size.
The derecho that devastated Iowa in the summer of 2020 started in eastern Nebraska. The sky suddenly turned purple that morning, a gorgeous bruise spreading from the northeast, and I did what I always do: turn over the deck furniture so the wind won’t knock it, pull the blinds so debris won’t scatter if the windows shatter, and then stand outside, watching until the last possible minute, at the wrecking power of this state.
I mean, I live in the city that, back in the late 1800s, stole the terminus of the railroad from Council Bluffs, stubbornly waiting until we were ordered by the Supreme Court to build a bridge across the Missouri River. I live in the state all the pioneers crossed on their way to a new future. Oregon Trail wheel ruts are still visible in the western end of this state, over 150 years later, only because they were not plowed under by enough white settlers. Way up at Fort Robinson in the northwest corner, Crazy Horse was murdered.
Bluestem waving in the wind, vanished prairies turned into cornfields, the beef we are renowned for presented on platters across the country. We feed the nation, and the nation feeds us their disdain. That comes out in every essay written by a Nebraskan: the fury at being seen for only what is easily digestible. Yes, there are barns with Trump signs, and there are houses decorated with photos of homesteading great-grandparent settlers who got their 160 acres once the federal government allotted off native land. A hundred years ago, when a race-rioting mob came for Will Brown and the mayor of Omaha stood in the way, the mayor was nearly lynched to death.
Politicians are never heard by the people here. People are never heard by the politicians here. Our current governor has refused to enact a mask mandate—going so far as to actually challenge the legality of Lincoln and Omaha’s citywide mask mandates. Our senators play Republican games and “chastised” Trump, but always voted with him.
You either love the Huskers, or you hate them. Either way, the Husker football schedule rules your life, especially if you are on the eastern end of the state and have any business headed west out of Omaha on Game Day. Everyone knows this one thing about us: we are a state still rabidly devoted to a football team that hasn’t won a major championship in nearly 25 years.
Our state tried to revamp its image by co-opting Minnesota Nice, using the slogan “Nebraska Nice.” When that failed, the state tourism board launched a confrontational campaign where—I shit you not—we argue “Nebraska: It’s Not for Everyone.” Omaha doubled down and announced a city slogan: “Omaha: We Don’t Coast.” Reclaiming contempt: that is the Nebraska way.
Nebraskans write about the prairie. Again and again. I am writing about the prairie again. Our other grand cliché is namechecking Willa Cather, if you are a writer, but also even if you are not. I was at a rural gun show several years ago and a vendor, to designate where he was from, said “Willa Cather country,” before muttering “whoever she is.” I have not been to Willa’s homeplace, but I have been to Homestead National Monument. There was no point in trying to look up my forebears because the land they stole was in Wisconsin, not Nebraska.
Nebraskans write about I-80. I described the interstate once as the waistband of Nebraska, sagging under a beer belly. Nebraska is flyover country—it’s true, why try to deny it? Planes fly over us and seldom into us—but Nebraska is also road-trip country. Because I like to be perverse, I tell everyone that my favorite part of driving to Colorado is western Nebraska, the long plains and the heartbeat of watching the land start to turn into sandhills just west of North Platte. I love the Platte River; I love how I-80 follows the Platte and, like a lover, kisses the road once, just past Grand Island, before the interstate follows it westward, smitten. You think in terms of “westward” out here.
Our independent bookstores are few; we don’t make the cut when the Big 5 (4) send authors out on tour. I did see David Grann in my local bookstore. A little group of 15 or so made it out that night. That’s very Nebraskan: little groups of like-minded people.
I said I enjoyed being perverse when it comes to expectations for my state, so I’ll add this: I can’t stop talking about how I am a blue voter in a red state, and how many more of us there are. I know I’m in a liberal enclave over here on the east side; NE-2 went for Obama in 2008 and the Bacon/Biden Republicans who couldn’t bring themselves to vote Trump again in 2020 is what delivered our little blue dot to the electoral college.
I know that this whole country is made up of contradictions—not just the Midwest, but across all the states. This essay isn’t meant to be a catalog of all the Super Surprising Things You Wouldn’t Expect to Find in Nebraska, the way our state’s tourism slogan is supposed to reveal. But Nebraska is a state that everyone “already knows” and, therefore, has already dismissed. As an essayist—because it does come out in every essay a Nebraskan writes—I can’t help seeing that old stubborn desire to show something different, peeking through the paragraphs like the head of bluestem. We know there is so much beneath the surface.
I can hear my neighbor outside right now, chipping up the ice beneath our record-breaking snow dump yesterday. A whole foot. A friend of mine, a native Omahan, said that in the last thirty-nine years, we haven’t had more snow fall here in a single day. I have been annoyed by my neighbor and his need to meticulously clear away all the snow and ice as quickly as possible, as if it had never happened. But when I stand to look out my front window, I can see that he has cleared the long sidewalk in front of my house as well as his own. I don’t know if it was a gesture of kindness, or if he wanted to maintain the appearance of uniformity.
Kristine Langley Mahler is a memoirist experimenting with the truth on the suburban prairie outside Omaha, Nebraska. Recipient of a 2021 Individual Artist Fellowship from the Nebraska Arts Council, Kristine's work was named Notable in Best American Essays 2019, received awards from Crab Orchard Review and Sundog Lit, and is published in DIAGRAM, Ninth Letter, Brevity, Speculative Nonfiction, and The Rumpus, among others. She is the Publisher at Split/Lip Press. Find more about her projects at kristinelangleymahler.com or @suburbanprairie.