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Reviewed by:
  • The Plain Sense of Things
  • Tyler S. Holzer
The Plain Sense of Things. By Pamela Carter Joern. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008. 221 pages, $18.95.

As a native of western Nebraska, I often reflect on how the rural landscapes of my youth have impressed upon me a distinct set of values that continue to shape my understanding of the world. Pamela Carter Joern explores similar ideas about place, family, and inheritance in her second novel, The Plain Sense of Things. Composed of seventeen connected stories that span five decades and three generations of the Preston family, the novel highlights the several characters' unbreakable family ties and their deep connection to the western Nebraska land they call home.

The Plain Sense of Things juxtaposes loss and hardship with redemption and love, emphasizing the need for personal connection in a rapidly changing America. In the first story, "Ghost Town," Gramp Preston learns of his estranged daughter Carlene's death, and he travels to the fading town of Heartstrong to bring her son, Billy, home to live with him. The experience forces Gramp to confront Carlene's promiscuous life and ultimately rediscover what he loved about her. The second story is set five years later, as Gramp's other daughter, Mary, attends her second husband's funeral. Mary is left to care for all of their children except for Alice, her stepdaughter. Two years after the funeral, Alice marries Jake, Mary's younger brother, and the couple becomes the nucleus around which the stories revolve. Carrying the lessons of their parents with them, Alice and Jake stake out a new life on the Nebraska prairie. [End Page 333]

We look on as life on the plains hardens the Prestons. The once girlish Alice becomes the mother of three children. She grows strong, but work and poverty soon make her tired. Jake, also exhausted from hard work that never seems to pay off, falls victim to undiagnosed depression and Parkinson's disease, and he withdraws from his family. Joern explores these tensions through Alice and Jake, as well as each of their children—Stevie, Frank, and Molly—to show us how the characters grow and change across time. In the three generations beginning with Gramp and Grandma Preston and ending with Alice and Jake's children, Joern shows how several of America's most trying and defining moments often had powerful implications for plains people. The family weathers the Depression; Mary lives in fear for the soldiers fighting in the Second World War, one of whom is her son; and Alice "takes it personally that Nixon lied" (195).

In the end, the grown Preston siblings return home to help their now-widowed mother make repairs to her home. At night, they "stand under the night sky shot with stars and blazoned by the Milky Way," and Molly, the youngest, ruminates on how "blood and history" will always connect them, no matter how far apart they grow (220). But place, too, binds them. The western Nebraska landscape of the Preston children's youth, though they have long since made new homes elsewhere, remains an inextricable part of who they are. [End Page 334]

Tyler S. Holzer
University of Nebraska, Omaha


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pp. 333-334
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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