Tag Archives: reading quest


In case you aren’t familiar with my reading quest, I am currently reading a book written by someone from each state in the United States.

 I read not one, but two books written by Sarah Smarsh from Kansas. Born in rural Kansas, she grew up on farms in small towns. Her family moved frequently and she attended eight schools before reaching ninth grade. Attending the University of Kansas, she received her MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University (not a small feat!).



This is not only a powerful but a very relevant book. As Smarsh says “You can go a very long time in the country without being seen.” 

Born into a family of farmers, she traces her family through five generations of teenage pregnancies – her mother was just 17 when Sarah was born.

During her childhood, in the 1980’s, family farms were going under – sometimes a victim of foreclosure, but also often the growth of giant agribusinesses. Her father began taking any job he could get, roofing, driving semi trucks and even disposing of poisonous industrial chemicals – one that almost killed him, resuting in years of debilitating psychosis.

The family was living below the poverty line, while at the same time considering themselves middle class. She writes:

“That we could live on a patch of Kansas dirt with a tub of Crisco lard and a $1 rebate coupon in an envelope on the kitchen counter and call ourselves middle class was at once a triumph of contentedness and a sad comment on our country’s lack of awareness about its own economic structure. Class didn’t exist in a democracy like ours, as far as most Americans were concerned, at least not as a destiny or an excuse. You got what you worked for, we believed. There was some truth to that. But it was not the whole truth.”

If there is an underlying question that begs to be answered, it is how did Smarsh get out?

How did a member of the sixth generation end up with a graduate degree from Columbia, a down payment for a house, and a memoir that is nominated for the National Book Award?  There is no single answer, even she doesn’t know if herself. She suggests she had supportive male role models – her father and grandfather – in a family where many women were prey to dangerous men. She abstained from teenage pregnancy – but she was talented and worked hard. Going to the University of Kansas on a merit scholarship, she also had three jobs lined up – this is the only thing that made college possible for her.

Is it a rebuttal to Hillbilly Elegy?  Could be, because she proves that poverty is not the result of laziness and bad choices, and the American Dream is not always possible for even those that work hard. 

Not a political book, she does point out most of her family are Republicans, which for them is a matter of pride, even if it means they are voting against their best interests. 

“People on welfare were presumed ‘lazy’, and for us there was no more hurtful word.”

When she is admitted to college on a federally funded program for minority, first-generation, and low income students, she found the handful of those in the program called themselves “White Trash Scholars”.

This is not a sentimental book, but she makes a powerful point that much of the “American World” has taught them they are disposable.


It seems as if the second book would be a perfect fit, but actually I read this book first. 

SHE COME BY IT NATURAL, Dolly Parton AND THE WOMEN WHO LIVED HER SONGS – While Sarah Smarsh was growing up in poverty, she heard songs by country female artists  telling powerful stories of life, hard times and surviving. It was a language among the women – and no one said it clearer for them than Dolly.

This was originally published in a four-part series for THE JOURNAL OF ROOTS MUSIC. Smarsh feels Dolly’s songs have validated women who are invisible – the “trailer trash” women who are struggling. Dolly began singing on the front porch of her family home,  achieving stardom in Nashville – a world managed by powerful men. Along the way, she managed to found both a self-made business and philanthropy empire, in her own terms. Go Dolly!



Dodge City is the REAL Windy City in the US – average wind speed is 14 MPH

Kansas really is as flat as a pancake as it was compared topographically to an IHOP pancake.

White Castle – the first hamburger chain was started here. Weirdly, there are no White Castles in Kansas at this time.

The amount of wheat grown here would stretch all the way to the Pacific Ocean from Kansas.

The helicopter was invented in Kansas.


Next I travel to Kentucky and then Louisianna – and I have my books picked out for these states. But then I travel to the “M” states (of which there are eight!).

If you have requests for the authors from the remaining states – let me know!








I started reading a book from an author from each state, going alphabetically. So, for Indiana, I chose CAT’S CRADLE by Kurt Vonnegut. You can look for the deeper meaning in his books, or you can just enjoy the “trippy” ride.

This is an apocalyptic tale that somehow ends up being absurdly comic. Published in 1963, it is told by the first-person narrator who calls himself Jonah – but probably really is named John. The plot revolves around a time when Jonah decides to write a book called THE DAY THE WORLD ENDED about what American’s did on the day of the bombing of Hiroshima.

While researching the book, Jonah travels to Ilium, New York, the hometown of the late Felix Hoenikker, the co-creator of the atomic bomb to interview his children and co-workers. There he learned about ICE-NINE, an alternative water that freezes at room temperature. If it so much as touches a drop of regular water, that will freeze, too, spreading so rapidly that it freezes everything that comes into contact with it.

He discovers Hoenikker’s three children carry this with them. He also learned from his youngest son, a dwarf named Newt, that remembers his father doing nothing more than playing the game Cat’s Cradle with him the day the bomb was dropped.

books cover
Cover of Cat’s Cradle.

Jonah/John travels to the Caribbean nation of San Lorenzo, one of the poorest nations on earth, to find Hoenikeer’s oldest son Frank. He find a guidebook where he learns about the religious movement called Bokononism, with the sacred text written in the form of calypsos. Bokononism is based on the concept of foma, which are defined as harmless untruths.

When he gets to San Lorenzo, John finds Frank’s ice-nine particle. A scientist in control of the particle accidentally releases it into the ocean. This freezes the ocean, killing plants and sea life. Basically, this succeeds in freezing all the worlds oceans and only a handful of people survive.

That’s the short version, but the themes found are issues about free will and man’s relation to technology. It is a relatively short book, with irony, black humor and parody throughout. Vonnegut said about his books, they “are essentially mosaics made up of a whole bunch of tiny little chips…and each chip is a joke”.

The book has been optioned by Leonardo De Caprio. There has been a calypso musical adaption performed. Oddly, the Gradeful Dead’s publishing company is ICE NINE, from the fictional substance that appears in this book.

One thing Newt says throughout the book about a Cat’s Cradle – it is neither a cradle and there is no cat. hmmm.

I think the most ironic part of the history of the book, The University of Chicago turned down Vonneguts’ thesis in 1947, but they gave him a master’s degree in anthropology in 1971 for this book!

Oh, and the main character, Jonah/John, is a proud Hoosier from Indianapolis.

So – my quest will take me next to Iowa and I will spend some time with one of my favorite writers, Bill Bryson.

If you have any books by authors from either Kansas or Kentucky, let me know!!!! Some states are easier to find authors than others. As I have refined my quest, I try to find books that have some tie to the state – so this one was a stretch.

Have you read this before? I’d love to know your thoughts about it!