Read Locally: 5 Novels Every Kansas Citian Should Check Out

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Monday, August 22, 2011

Kansas City and its surrounding lands have inspired – and starred in – some fine fiction. Some of the authors in this roundup of locally grown novels disguise their native habitat, while others name it outright. Still other authors call KC home and drop their characters in foreign lands or challenging moral situations.

Readers who dip into the works of our local literati will not be disappointed and will be proud to say, “I know this place!” or “This author lives HERE!”

Well, this first one doesn’t live here. Thomas Fox Averill lives in Topeka, Kansas where he is the writer-in-residence at Washburn University. But Secrets of the Tsil Café is a culinary novel set on W. 39th Street in midtown KC. Careful readers (who’ve lived in Kansas City for a looong time) will recognize the description of the restaurant as the old Hannah Bistro on the corner of State Line and 39th. Averill sets his foodie family drama in an environment full of volatile, colorful personalities who put as much passion into their cooking as they do their fighting. Wes Hingler, the son of chefs Weston and Maria Tito, will grow into a chef who finds a way to blend the two delicious yet disparate styles of his parents. Readers will delight in the unusual recipes sprinkled about the novel. I suggest the Gooseberry Enchiladas.

Mystery readers will enjoy Nebraska native Lise McClendon’s first novel in her Dorie Lenox series, One O’Clock Jump. Lenox is an operative for a Kansas City PI and has been hired to follow a meatpacker’s girlfriend, a simpler task for Lenox than any of the male operatives. When the girlfriend takes a header into the Missouri river and then makes a phone call from the grave to her boyfriend’s jealous wife, Lenox stays on the case. Lots of period detail and snappy dialogue will accompany readers into the Kansas City of Count Basie and midnight jazz.

Someone who did live here, Jetta Carleton, penned one of the most beautiful descriptions of Missouri farmland ever put to paper. The Moonflower Vine is a recently rediscovered classic of American literature and since its reappearance, the first and only novel from Carleton has been a book group favorite. Although this story of an early 20th century rural family seems leisurely paced, pages will turn quickly as readers become absorbed in each family member’s tale of love, loss, yearning, and betrayal. It’s truly a timeless tale and a quintessential Missouri novel. Carleton was born in Holden and spent many of her working years in Kansas City before moving to New Mexico.

One Kansas City author takes her characters out of their comfort zones. Jacqueline Guidry pens a novel set in the Deep South about two young girls and the relationship they have with their family’s black housekeeper and her daughter? Sound familiar? There’s really no comparison between The Year the Colored Sisters Came to Town and that other novel. Guidry uses the viewpoint of 10-year-old Vivien to describe her burgeoning awareness of the differences her parents place on race, class, religious denominations, and gender. More comparable in tone to To Kill a Mockingbird.

Mathew Eck took his experiences as a soldier in Somalia and turned them into one of the most deft novels about the war experience, The Farther Shore. His Wichita, Kansas, soldierboy, Josh, is dedicated, loyal, and confused. It won’t take long before the reader, like Josh, begins to wonder, “Where and why are we here?” The location of the war zone and the ultimate goal of the mission are never revealed. This is not important – the terror, helplessness, and doggedness of the soldiers’ experience are. Dropped in a war-torn country where children are both pint-sized terrorists and bloody victims, this debut is as searing as Red Badge of Courage. Eck’s first novel won the Mildweed National Fiction Prize in 2008. He currently teaches creative writing at the University of Central Missouri.

Fill out your reading with some homegrown talent, and let us know: Who are your favorite authors who have lived in or written about Kansas City? Post your recommendations in the comments.


About the Author

Kaite Stover

Kaite Mediatore Stover is the Head of Readers’ Services for the Kansas City Public Library. She is a regular guest on KCUR's Book Doctors segment and moderator of The Kansas City Star’s FYI Book Club.