John Ise (1885-1969) wrote Sod and Stubble (1936) during the Dust Bowl, when people were either giving up or surviving terrible drought. In some ways, his story of his mother’s life from 1873-1909, near Downs, Kansas, is a call for courage. Certainly, the Ise family, Henry and Rose and their 11 children, saw their share of hardship from blizzard, prairie fire, drought, grasshoppers, even Native Americans. Yet their persistence is the very message of the book. In his Preface, Ise notes his mother’s “energy” and belief in education. Nine of the 11 children went to university. “It is a story of grim and tenacious devotion in the face of hardships and disappointments, devotion that never flagged until the long, hard task of near a lifetime was done.” The book shows that such virtues will be rewarded, demonstrating, perhaps as well as any Kansas novel, the state motto: Ad Astra Per Aspera, or “To the Stars Through Difficulties.” Although Sod and Stubble is biography, it is written like a novel and often taught in literature courses.
A counterpoint to Sod and Stubble is Dust (1921), by Emanuel (1889-1951) and Marcet (1887-1941) Haldeman-Julius. Set in roughly the same time period, this novel tells the story of Martin Wade, whose father dies shortly after the family homesteads southeastern Kansas after the Civil War. Traumatized by his youth, and by the hardship of settlement, Martin Wade finds solace only in work, in driving himself and those around him, as well as his land and livestock, toward a prosperity that is meaningless to him. All difficulties. No stars.
Edna Walker Chandler (1908-1982), who wrote Chaff in the Wind (1964), grew up near Macksville, Kansas, of Swedish parents. This is pioneering from the point of the younger generation of women, who, aided by the example of their strong mother (she refuses to cook and clean during harvest unless she is compensated just like the workers), learn to both appreciate and transcend the work of farming.
Charlotte Hinger (b. 1940), in Come Spring (1986), writes about the settlement of Western Kansas, and not only the difficulties in setting down agricultural roots but the homesteaders’ problems with town entrepreneurs, developers and the growing influence of the railroads in the latter part of the 19th Century.
Plow the Dew Under (1952), by Helen Fernald (1888-c.1940) treats Crimean immigrants, especially the second generation, the sons and daughters of immigrants, who live in the world of the parents’ past and the America of their own future.
Mela Meisner Lindsay (1903-1989), in her autobiographical novel The Story of Evaliz Shukar Balan: The White Lamb (1976), divides her setting between the steppes of Russia and the plains of Western Kansas, where this Volga-German family emigrate in 1905. Their quest is for acceptance, and their measure of success becomes typically American: citizenship, education and ownership of land.
Dell Munger (1862-c.1932) begins her novel The Wind Before the Dawn (1912) with the grasshopper invasion of 1874, in cattle country. A somewhat romantic tale of love and mortgages, the story nevertheless captures the hardships and triumphs typical of the farm novel in Kansas.
Robert McAlmon (1896-1956) was born in Clifton, Kansas. One of the “Lost Generation,” he lived and worked in Paris for many years. His collection of short stories, A Hasty Bunch, first published in the 1920s, was reprinted in the Lost American Fiction Series by Illinois University Press in 1977, and includes stories set in rural Kansas, New Mexico, South Dakota and Paris.
Meridel LeSueur (1900-1996), who spent some growing up time in Fort Scott, wrote about farm life in her classics Harvest (1977) and The Girl (1978), both reprinted by West End Press.