You can’t escape Willa Cather’s shadow if you’re a Nebraskan. Who can best “the golden light seemed to be rippling through the curly grass like the tide racing in” when it comes to nailing dawn in that state? Cather makes any competing author just want to write about New York City. But it takes an exile to really see a landscape. She was not Nebraskan, she left the rolling hills of Virginia behind for remote Red Cloud at the tender age of nine and stayed only a decade. I am a native, but I too have the advantage of an exile’s perspective, having fled to New York after my own time in a small Nebraskan town. Cather is the eldest of seven children, I am the eldest of nine. We both had a Latin tutor, we both feared “we might die in a cornfield”—her words. But I am Bohemian.


“I’ve never met anyone from Nebraska.”

Usual response when I tell people where I grew up. Then, “Where is that, up near Maine?” Followed by, “Did you have to draw water from a well?”

I say, “Yes, it’s near Maine, because ‘N’ comes after ‘M’ in the alphabet and that’s how all the states are arranged geographically.” And I say, “On the prairie, we didn’t drink water. Just gin. Which springs up from a well naturally, and is why we’re always drunk out there.”

When I first moved to Massachusetts, having driven across the country in a small black Honda Civic that wheezed at even the hint of an incline, I still had my Nebraska license plates on the car – a bright orange and red dramatization of the Midwest, with a fiery, setting sun in the upper corner and three geese artfully flying home. A few cattails garnished the corners. Somebody got carried away.

These plates shone ostentatiously in every parking lot, in every traffic jam, as if my car had worn an inappropriate dress to a party; they stunned people. I nearly ran some folks over because they lost all sense of time and place and human dignity and just stared. I once watched someone mouth the word, slowly, as if pronouncing it for the first time, “Ne-bra-ska,” and then elbow a friend and point at me in astonishment. I could have been a Lost Boy who escaped the Congo for wintry Minnesota. How did I ever survive there, or make it out alive?

A few weeks after I moved into an apartment, my neighbor trotted across the street to introduce himself. He was a teacher, and he was thinking of inviting me to speak to his class. I thought it was because I was a young, intrepid journalist who could inspire a stray kid to “stay in school.”

“Because you’re from Nebraska,” he said. “My students have never met anyone like you.” Exotic, corn-fed girl to give speech about the hard life on the Plains, her encounters with natives, tilling the soil, meeting boys at county fairs and then never seeing them again until they ride up on horseback to ask her papa for her hand, and the wonders of cooking with sorghum.

I’ve now been on the East Coast for over eight years and ditched those license plates long ago. I started to get weary that they read, “Rob me.” But after all this time, I’ve noticed there’s still some mass confusion, and dare I say – hysteria – about what it’s like growing up Nebraskan. So I thought I’d clear it up for y’all.

First, we don’t say y’all. Or at least I never did in my neck of the woods. We didn’t say “neck of the woods”, either. I did not walk for miles to get water. I did not tussle, barter, or give poisonous blankets to Indians. I learned about Native Americans the same way everyone else did – at a museum where I stood in a fake teepee and wondered where they went to the bathroom. My parents did not own a farm.

A lot of people know how to read. The state is flat, but not all flat. It’s in the middle of the country, surrounded by a group of states that make up what’s known as “the Midwest.” Wiki that for more. We didn’t own cows. Omaha Steaks really aren’t that amazing, even though they’re a prize on “Wheel of Fortune.” Also, not everyone from Nebraska is the nicest person you’ve ever met. I’m not that nice; I just come across that way. Finally, I probably don’t know the person you know who lives/lived in Iowa, Missouri or Kansas.

And yes, for god’s sake, yes, I’ve seen a tornado, and yes, it was scary.

So what was life like, on the prairie and all? No prairie – I lived in the suburbs of Omaha, in the town of Bellevue, where my dad worked as contractor for the military in the underground buildings at Offutt Air Force Base. I was told Bellevue would be the second place bombed if the U.S. was ever attacked; the first would be the White House. Sometimes I looked up at the sky and wondered if anyone was aiming for us.

I learned about the prairie and covered wagons and baking biscuits in iron skillets by reading Willa Cather. O pioneer, indeed! That sounds like it was hard. Once, my dad forced us to drive across the entire state on a family vacation on our way to the Badlands, and I liked the town of Valentine, Nebraska, only for it’s name. Its emptiness scared me. You could have called this trip, “The Trail of Tears,” but that joke might be too soon.

In high school, I was a Cornhusker fan like everyone else. I went to the stadium to watch a couple of games and got caught up in the eerie, nationalistic fervor as the Red Sea parted for our favorite players, like Tommie Frazier and Brook Berringer (whose death in a plane accident made all the girls at school cry, including me). We won Orange Bowls and other fruit-type bowls, and head coach Tom Osborne became a congress member. I didn’t know his politics then, and didn’t care. No one did. He had led our team to victory, and somehow that made him a little like God.

Speaking of God, there was a lot of Him. Probably because there wasn’t a whole lot else left to do – God and football. So if you imagined this, you were right.

I did work on a farm for one summer when I was fourteen years old, de-tassling corn with a crew of child labor. We were bussed out to farms at five in the morning, our sleepy heads bouncing in the dark. Other than this experience, I didn’t grow up any closer to the land than a kid in Brooklyn. I ate a lot of Taco Bell.

See, it’s all pretty normal, growing up stuff. You and me, we’re not that different after all. The whole “Nebraska” thing doesn’t have to divide us anymore, or utterly confuse you.

Do I plan to ever move back? Are you crazy?! That state is as crazy as all get out. Never said “as all get out”, either.