On the High Plains, Stories of Migrants and Murals

Stacy Clopton Yates

Stacy Clopton Yates produces The High Plains in Words for High Plains Public Radio, which serves western Kansas, eastern Colorado, and the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. hide caption

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We polled NPR member stations, looking for shows and personalities with a passion for the writers in — and the writing about — their home territories. When we found them, we asked what they were reading.

With its flat landscapes and harsh weather, the High Plains — that vast prairie expanse stretching from West Texas to Northern Montana, east of the Rocky Mountains — is a region that doesn't appeal to everyone, as High Plains Public Radio producer Stacy Clopton Yates is quick to acknowledge.

But to those who choose to make a home there, Yates says, it's the greatest place on earth.

The High Plains in Words, a weekly feature Yates produces for HPPR, celebrates the uniqueness of the region — its scouring winds, diabolical flora, and uncompromising inhabitants— as expressed in the written word.

As the summer slouches into its dog days, Yates recommends these reads:

For a Child Alone, an All Too Plausible Escape Fantasy

God of Animals: Book Cover
The God of Animals, by Aryn Kyle, hardcover, 305 pages

Aryn Kyle's debut novel is a beautiful and heartbreaking story of isolation, family, class, love and death. The narrator, Alice, is a 12-year-old growing up on a horse ranch in a small Colorado town; her father is distant and overworked and her mother, a victim of clinical depression, hasn't left her bedroom since Alice was a baby. And her older sister has run off to marry a rodeo cowboy. (Read an excerpt and hear a passage.)

Since that departure, the family fortunes have taken a turn for the worse, and Alice has been both witness and accomplice to her father's schemes to return the family to prosperity. These include boarding horses for rich, bored trophy wives and giving riding lessons — not to mention false hope — to one poor little rich girl, in anticipation of attracting other students.

Alice's exposure to this very adult world of betrayal and cruelty only adds to her feelings of isolation, which prompt her to invent an imaginary friendship with a deceased classmate — and to create a potentially dangerous bond with a male teacher. A story not soon forgotten, The God of Animals is a beautiful novel that resonates with terrifying plausibility.

Two Nations, Intertwined: The North American Migration

Antonio's Gun and Delfino's Dream: Book Cover
Antonio's Gun and Delfino's Dream, by Sam Quinones, hardcover, 315 pages

Want your summer reading to be educational as well as entertaining? Try this collection.

With stories about corrupt elections in the city of South Gate, Calif., about the rise and fall of the velvet-painting industry, and about a transformed Southwest Kansas high-school soccer team, Quinones illustrates how immigration affects American society and sustains the Mexican economy — even as it diminishes hope for that country's reform.

Here are stories that illustrate what the United States represents to Mexican immigrants — and how this generation's largest migration of people from one country to another has changed America. (Listen to a passage.)

Quinones establishes context for his stories on both sides of the border, so each of these riveting tales is a microcosmic lesson in both history and sociology. Immigration is one of the most polarizing concerns in America today, and Quinones captures and illustrates the issue in all its nuance and complexity.

In a Texas Church, Art That Was a Gift — Or Was It?

Italian POWs: Book Cover
Italian POWs and a Texas Church, by Donald Mace Williams, paperback, 145 pages

This is the true story of the lavish artwork in a modest Catholic Church near the small Texas Panhandle town of Umbarger — about how it came to be and the realities it represents. (Read an excerpt.)

These Renaissance-inspired murals, paintings and carvings were created in 1945 by Franco de Bello and six companions — Italian prisoners held at the U.S. Army's Camp Hereford near the end of World War II. Author Donald Mace Williams' extensive research into the camp and its occupants reveals that the artwork wasn't a gesture from grateful prisoners to their humane wardens, as some have thought.

Rather, it had to do with a priest who wanted to adorn his church at minimal expense, and prisoners seeking to increase their food supply in a period — they called it la fame, or the famine — when POW rations at Hereford had been cut dramatically, as shocked Americans reacted to the first news of Nazi concentration camps and to the weakened state of American prisoners returning home from Europe.

Williams' account is unflinching about both the positive and negative aspects of Camp Hereford, and this unique experience in American history makes a good story. Italian POWs and a Texas Church is an especially valuable find for history and art enthusiasts.

Prairie Women, Weathering Storms Literal and Otherwise

Stormy Weather: Book Cover
Stormy Weather, by Paulette Jiles, hardcover, 342 pages

Paulette Jiles does something extraordinary in this second novel: She takes one of the most dismal times in American history and creates a hopeful, cathartic story. And she does it without being preachy, through characters who are utterly believable — and all too human.

Set among the oilfields, farms and ranches of 1930s Texas, Stormy Weather is the story of the Stoddard clan — particularly the Stoddard women — who endure storms within their own family and community, as well as the drought-borne "black dusters" that cast a grimy film over the entire decade. Elizabeth Stoddard and her three daughters have grown used to following patriarch Jack from town to town — grown used to struggling to make ends meet as his earnings disappear into gambling and drink. Jeanine, the middle daughter and her father's favorite, pays the highest price for his ultimate betrayal, but she's also the one who summons the nerve and grit to rebuild their lives. (Listen to a passage.)

Jiles writes in lyrical prose, with a gift for description, setting one family's struggles against the backdrop of a country in crisis and a world lumbering from one World War to the next. Stormy Weather is heartbreaking, hopeful and intensely satisfying.

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