Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Schoonering Through Nebraska

A Blog of Sorts

Kwame Dawes and Marianne Kunkel are embarking on a goodwill tour across Nebraska, from public library to public library to connect people with the journal and to celebrate the value of the literary arts in the states. Along the way, they are blogging about their journey. This is Kwame’s third blog entry after a visit to Broken Bow, Nebraska.

Broken Bow, NE
Pop. 3500

You double back along I-80 with the sun muting the edges of the road. The tawny landscape is cratered and contoured by gentle escarpments, unassuming hillocks, and then long stretches of pasture land. They tell me that outside of winter the grass is heavy and poetic: amber, red, and hints of blue. Right now I am reaching for versions of yellow, with a deep greyish brown at the dark end of the spectrum and a dull, insipid yellow at the bright end of things. Red barns, white buildings, the cluster of houses as we pass the town of Sidney and stands of evergreens are the spots of relief—color. Those and the dramatic sky—big, loud, and oppressively empty and blue—are the memorably beautiful features of this landscape.

The farmers and those who live by farmers as neighbors know that our good fortune is a sign of their hardship. We have had good weather each day of this trip. Sunny, fairly warm, and even the wind has been a breeze. Heading north towards Broken Bow, the terrain dips and slopes and the highway has swooping bends—the yellow and black arrows warning of deep swings in the road are copious on this stretch of fifty or so miles northward from Lexington. I imagine what horror it might have been for a blizzard to suggest itself on these unprotected roads—blowing snow blinding everything. Droughts are nice for tourists in December even if they make the farmers nervous about the harvests the next year. Nebraska is experiencing a drought, and the world will be affected by the repercussions of the drought in another year.

Our audience last night in Broken Bow was again small. And our host was again a generous and optimistic librarian, Joan Birnie, who prepared cookies and coffee for us, and this time I got to sit in the sensible, spinning librarian Hugh chair, a piece of Wagner woodcraft. I wanted to take it with me back to Lincoln for my office. And the library was again a lovely and welcoming space. It is hard to see such well-kept and lovingly laid-out spaces in small towns and not think that for anyone the library is something of an oasis, a place to slow down, to reflect, to hide away, and to travel on the imagination. These places feel so necessary to me.

Our modest audience of eight citizens of Broken Bow promised to be an enthusiastic one. They chuckled appropriately and even gave ripples of applause after some poems. As usual, our discussions about the journal, about writing, and about publishing were most intense. It is clear that there are clusters of avid readers and writers in these small rural towns across the state, hungry for community even as they enjoy the sense of isolation and small town civility.

Broken Bow is the capital of the county of Custer. And yes, the county of Custer was named after General George Armstrong Custer in 1877, a year after Little Big Horn. No doubt the county was named in sympathetic solidarity and honor to Custer, and this strange championing of the frontier spirit with all its bloodshed and disenfranchisement is part of the collective memory of much of Nebraska. There were tragedies in Nebraska. This is where nations were defeated. This is where the people who had occupied this land for centuries were slaughtered. The marauders have been fortunate to have their dignity and tragic resolve preserved in books and films. This is one of the benefits of winning wars. After all, they did win. And indeed they suffered in their victory. But the truth of Nebraska is the truth of America. There is blood in these lands and in the making of the large metropolises, the sprawling Southern cities, and the stoic Midwestern isolated towns. Modern life teaches us how to turn the metaphors of names into anthems of hope and peace.

Broken Bow's people have chosen not to forget this and not to hide the brute triumph. They have kept the name. At the library I asked about the significance of the title. A man responded, “It’s not good.” He has the manner and language of a liberal (and here I am relying on unreliable stereotypes). His words are ominous. But the Internet does not offer anything terrible. Broken Bow was named when a man called Hewitt found a broken Indian bow on an Indian burial ground. The Postal Services, having rejected several other names, accepted this one. I suspect that the more warm-hearted people saw the broken bow as a parallel to the biblical turning of swords into ploughshares and so on. The broken bow might even have been for some of them a sign lamenting the end of the warrior spirit of the native people from this area. But I believe the overwhelming symbolism was not driven by something so generous. It was a name commemorating the defeat of the enemy and the triumph of the pioneers in their effort to tame the west. The broken bow would be equivalent to naming London “Broken Messerschmitt,” which makes me suspect that the native people of the area had little say when it came time to name the town.

But I have lived in America long enough to know that I could be completely wrong about my assumptions about history. Symbols are peculiar things. Names are strange in the way that they speak to a moment and in the way they evolve in meaning over time.

I thought to perform my poem “I Shot John Wayne Today” on this goodwill tour at Broken Bow. It would make for a great little story about my trip out west. But I decided against it at Broken Bow. When we told our audience that Sherman Alexie will be reading in Lincoln in January, we were told that his name and work are known as controversial in these parts. People have strong views of his work as they do of E.L. James. Although the quarrels are slightly different in discussions about these two works of literature, the term controversial does mean that some people are still fighting the battles of over a hundred years ago.

Like the South, the shadows of war, loss, and blood undoubtedly haunt these prairies. And the feeling of isolation makes it hard to forget that sense of being in a world of harsh terrain in which you have to make do to survive. This is part of the spirit of these towns.

In Broken Bow I am desperate for bars on my Mac. I get none at the Arrow Hotel (it is broken and there is no promise that it will be fixed) and so we walk over to the lovely Prairie Ground Café with its cozy living room décor, gregarious staff , wood-paneled walls, and Christmas-decorated fireplace where the staff serve an exceptional quiche and offer very stable, gallopingly fast Internet. I am writing this from there.