At the long-term care facility where Robert Rebein's father lands after a horrific car crash, a shadow box hangs next to each room, its contents suggesting something of the occupant's life. In Headlights on the Prairie, Rebein has created a literary shadow box of sorts, a book in which moments of singular grace and grit encapsulate a life and a world.
In the tradition of memoirs such as Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life and Ivan Doig's This House of Sky, these essays bring a storyteller's gifts to life's dramas, large and small. Following his award-winning turn on his hometown of Dodge City, Rebein takes us back to the high plains world where his family has farmed and ranched since the 1920s. It is a world populated by feedlot cowboys, stock car drivers, and farm kids dreaming of basketball glory. Here too we find the darker tales of damaged young men returning from war, long-haul truckers addicted to crystal meth, and the sadly heroic residents of a small-town nursing home grandiloquently named Manor of the Plains.
Whether contemplating a fiery crash at a race track, coming to terms with an aging parent, or navigating the last days of a beloved family dog, Rebein offers a subtle, unsparing, often moving look at the moments that go into making a writer and a man. Seen in sharp detail, and recalled from a distance, his is a story of how a man can leave his home on the prairie--and yet never really get out of Dodge.
Included in the book are two essays,"Bullet in the Brain" and "A Fire on the Moon,"that were named Notable Essays of the Year in the 2015 and 2016 editions ofBest American Essays edited by Robert Atwan.
"I learned much reading Headlights on the Prairie. Its strength for me is the way it brings forward those things about Western Kansas that are cultures in and of themselves, and that most people don't really know beyond impressions. I'm speaking here of truck stops, race tracks, feedlots, the intensity of the fight and sports cultures, the long-distance medical help, the appeal of dogs and horses as fellow creatures important to daily life. All of the essays are underscored with the risks, the terror, the near misses, the uncontrollable, from weather to animals to other people. Life in Western Kansas has always been a gamble, and Rebein makes that clear over and over in these fine essays."
--Thomas Fox Averill, author of rode
"The weekend that I spent reading Headlights on the Prairie was deeply pleasurable. The ideas—rich, substantial, complex, worthwhile—are paired with prose that is deceptively simple, straightforward, conversational. There's humility in this voice—a big dose of ruefulness, too—but Rebein's range is expansive enough to hit the bigger (or perhaps I should say, deeper) notes of grief and joy. Like many of the people Rebein describes, his sentences work like machines with a job to do; they are muscular, straightforward, un-fussy—in short, perfectly suited to his subject matter. Headlights on the Prairie both illuminates and transcends its setting. It is set in the Midwest, yes, but it is also set in the region of boyhood, of family, and (despite the presence of his wife and children) of men who work in the outdoors. Rebein offers in the very first sentence the words 'complex' and 'ambivalent' to describe his feelings about his home state, in contrast to the simplistic, one-dimensional view of people whose only idea of Kansas comes from the 1939 film. Work that takes on the myths and stereotypes that encrust a place is not to everyone's taste, and it rarely earns kudos from the Chamber of Commerce. But I find it braver and more interesting—also, in the long run, more durable—than writing that simply strokes a reader's certainties. This is a marvelous book."
--Jennifer Brice, author of Unlearning to Fly
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