Thinking Roots — one amazing Nebraska novel

Nebraska isn’t always a literary star. Not because there aren’t fabulous people there, readers, writers, and all. But the last Nebraska novel I can think of is Boys Don’t Cry, based on real happenings in a small town, none of them very pretty. So it was with some anticipation, and trepidation, that I picked up The Echo-maker by Richard Powers.

The big “National Book Award Winner” sticker on the paperback’s cover did help! And Nebraskans can be proud of their portrayal in this novel. The author is not from the state as far as I can tell but he has a winner. The setting is Kearney, during and around the sandhill crane migration which has made this mid-point USA town a magnet for bird lovers.

Many of my loved ones are from Kearney, including my husband and my inlaws. My best bud Susan went to college there, not to mention the whole Adams clan. One of my favorite English professors taught at Kearney State, before it was renamed University of Nebraska-Kearney. I am from Lincoln, down the interstate a ways. But in some ways this place, Kearney, along the wide, flat Platte River, personifies prairie life in Nebraska: not too big, not too small, pretty flat, pretty isolated, but pretty in its way.

The Echo-maker is an engrossing look at the nature of relationships and identity. A young man rolls his truck one winter night during the crane migration. He recovers from his brain injury in all but one way: he no longer recognizes his family. Since his older sister is really the only family he has left, it is her burden to bear. There is more, the way the instincts of the brain work, in humans and birds, the peculiar nature of the outside expert, the hope and despair of growing up.

I’d love to read more great novels set in Nebraska. Send ’em on!

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