This story does not go anywhere in any conventional sense. Rather it quite exquisitely sets a tone, delicately sketches an environment, and projects a slice of history dealing with how the West was settled and with the generalized types of people who settled it. First published in Prairie Schooner and subsequently in Harpers, “Nebraska” is a story of place. The town in which it is set remains unnamed, although at the very beginning, Ron Hansen offers a catalog of place-names—Americus, Covenant, Denmark, Grange, Hooray, Jerusalem, and Sweetwater—any of which might identify the small town in which the story is set. These towns are too small to be on any but the most specialized regional maps. Hansen creates a prototype for a typical, tiny Nebraska town.
Although he names various people in his story, the author develops none of these people as rounded characters. He mentions their names, offers a fact or two about each, then moves on. If there is any looming character in the story, it is the small town that significantly shapes the outlooks and lives of those who live in it.
The town and the area take on lives of their own. They exist as discrete entities, flat bodies spread out on a flat landscape. The only outside life pulsing through them comes from the Union Pacific trains that lumber through the town several times a day, occasionally stopping just long enough to deposit a boxcar full of supplies on a siding. The railroad tracks are the arteries of the recumbent body that is the town.
Little happens in this story or to the few people who populate it. Just as the population of the small Nebraska town is sparse, so is the population of the story. Hansen relates how some people convert their porches to sleeping quarters for boys who will soon join the navy and find themselves on ships whose populations are as great as that of the town from which they come.
Most of the pioneers who settled Nebraska are of German, Swedish, Danish, and Polish stock. They journeyed west from the east coast ports through which they entered the country, finally reaching Nebraska, where many of them settled because, exhausted and disoriented, they compromised, following the path of least resistance.
Here they built their first dwellings, sod houses—largely holes in the ground with wooden supports to hold up the blocks of sod from which the walls and roof were made. Such dwellings were buried in snow during the harsh prairie winters and emerged crumbling with the spring thaw.
“Nebraska” is largely nostalgic. It briefly sketches salient details about each season: the hay trucks spraying the...
(The entire section is 665 words.)