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Despite some doubts along the way, it turns out that I really wrote this book, my amazing agent really took a chance on it, my incredible editor really bought it, and it’s really for sale today!

ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL

It’s for sale pretty much everywhere in North America: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, Books-A-Million, plus maybe even your local bookstore. If they don’t have it, they can order it for you.

Now, obviously, I love this book with all my heart, but you don’t have to take my word on whether it’s worth reading. Here are some of my reviews:

Kirkus Reviews called it a “powerful, provocative debut” and “Intelligent, honest, and unsentimental.”

Publishers Weekly says it’s “a memorable coming-of-age tale about loyalty, defiance, and the power of love under the most improbable circumstances.”

Library Journal said the book is “so freakishly good and dangerous that it should come with a warning label.” I’m pretty sure they mean that in a good way.

The Associated Press calls it “captivating and smartly written from the first page … instantly absorbing.” But they also warn would-be readers that “This book won’t pull at heartstrings but instead yank out the entire organ and shake it about before lodging it back in an unfamiliar position.”

Tonight I’ll be having a book release party at the lovely Lawrence Public Library at 7:30 pm. (Co-hosted by The Raven Book Store.) If you’re in the area, come on out!

Tomorrow night, I’ll be at Rainy Day Books in Kansas City. If you’re long distance and want to purchase a signed copy, you can order one through them.

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It’s the Eldridge Hotel now, but it stands on the site of what was called the Free State Hotel. On May 21, 1856, pro-slavery Missouri militiamen, riding under a red flag inscribed with the words “Southern Rights” sacked Lawrence.  Using a cannon, kegs of gunpowder, and eventually an incendiary device they finally reduced the Free State Hotel to a pile of smoking rubble.  They also looted the downtown and ransacked the two publishing houses in Lawrence, destroying the presses and throwing the type into the river*.

Technically speaking, the raid was perfectly legal.  At least as legal as the raid on David Koresh’s compound in Waco, TX, in this century.  Federal Marshal J.B. Donaldson issued an order that declared the abolitionist citizens of Lawrence to be engaged in what we would now call an “insurgency” against the pro-slavery state legislature that Washington, D.C., officially recognized as the legal government in the territory.  (Surprise: the government isn’t always on the side of good.)  Donaldson approved the “counter-insurgency measures” that ended in the destruction of the Free State Hotel.

It wasn’t the first or last scuffle Lawrence would be involved in.  The previous November, the Wakarusa War broke out, following a series of tit-for-tat killings between pro- and anti-slavery camps.  The siege on Lawrence that followed ended peacefully, but Lawrence and the most famous participant in the Wakarusa War–abolitionist John Brown–went on to bigger and bloodier things.

Seven years later, William Quantrill would lead more than 300 bushwhackers on a raid into Lawrence.  They killed nearly 200 men and boys, many of them unarmed, and burned almost every building in town to the ground, including the Free State Hotel, now known as the Eldridge Hotel.

As for John Brown, well, he went on to start the Civil War.  He was a radical, a dangerous man, a brave man, a religious man.  An extremist.  A terrorist.  A visionary.  He died just before noon on December 2, 1859, with a noose around his neck.  His last wish–denied–was that his wife be allowed to spend a last night with him.

*Legend has it that this ruined press type was later melted down and turned into shot and cannonballs, which were used to fight the Civil War.

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As elsewhere, here in Kansas we’re locked in debate over how to fuel our decadent* energy-consuming lifestyle. We’ve recently had to step beyond debate into action, though. In October, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment refused to grant a permit for the construction of two new coal-fired power plants. The agency cited environmental and health concerns. Huh, figure that. What a thing for them to be concerned about. The two plants would have provided power to Kansas and Eastern Colorado, and produced more than ten tons of carbon dioxide annually.

It’s an exciting time to be a Kansan. Sometimes I daydream about us starting an energry revolution as big as our push for freedom that started the Civil War. Hopefully not as bloody, but as stunning in the change it proposes: real efforts to use sustainable, alternative fuels. Governor Sebelius’s State of the State Address this year contained this observation: “The question of where we get our energy is . . . no longer just an economic issue, nor solely an issue of national security. Quite simply, we have a moral obligation to be good stewards of this state.”

In a state where we have incredible wind resources and considerable solar exposure, there’s no reason to sink millions of dollars into power plants that are going to perpetuate our dependence on non-renewable resources that pollute the environment. Where from here, though? We have the wind and the sun, but no infrastructure to take advantage of it. We’ve got biomass, for sure, just drive out by Dodge City and breathe in the “biomass” fumes.

Of course, in addition to wind and solar power, there are people pushing for more nuclear power. Clean, safe, dependable, all that. It gives me the willies, as childish as that sounds. The coal-fired plants the KDHE rejected would have been located near their current coal plant, in Holcomb, Kansas. I grew up not two hours from Holcomb, and if I still lived there, I wouldn’t want more coal-fired plants near me. Sure, nobody wants it in their backyard, and that ought to be a hint that it’s a bad idea. The same is true with nuclear power. I wouldn’t mind a wind farm or a solar array in my backyard, but I don’t want a nuclear plant in my neighborhood, again.

Funny story about nuclear power: I used to live in Japan, in Niigata-ken, which is in the north, sandwiched between the Japan Sea and the Honshu mountain range, home of the most expensive high-speed rail line in the world. My little apartment was in a small suburb near a large temple complex and public park. I lived right over a small convenience store, and out my back windows was an incredible stretch of rice paddies–truly I lived in “inaka.” I also lived less than 30 km from the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactor. About three months after I moved into that apartment, my doorbell rang, and I opened the door to an older man in a suit. He presented me with a formal envelope of very expensive paper. Bowing down, he rattled off what I think was an elaborately scripted apology, and then he departed. Inside the envelope was a letter and a check, made payable to me, in the amount of about $150 in yen.

My Japanese wasn’t very good, so I took the letter over to my boss’ house. He read it, nodded, and said, “Oh, yes, it’s your reactor money.” It turns out that everyone who lives within 50 km of Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, and perhaps every nuclear reactor in Japan, receives a check to compensate them for the “inherent danger” of living so close to a nuclear reactor. If Kashiwazaki-Kariwa went Chernobyl in the middle of the night, I was as good as dead. My boss intimated that most people used the money to purchase additional life and property insurance. I, uh, bought a stereo and a really gorgeous meal at the only Indian restaurant in Niigata-ken. Live for today.

Since then, there has been a minor incident at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant. An earthquake caused a minuscule amount of radioactive material to be flushed into the Japan Sea. Turns out Kashiwazaki isn’t Japanese for “Chernobyl.” All the same, I think I’ll pass.

The photo is of a mural in the church in Pripyat, Ukraine, within the “kill zone” of the Chernobyl reactor disaster. Formerly a town of 45,000 people, Pripyat is completely abandoned now. A few years back, some intrepid photographer ventured in through the security gates to photograph the truly frightening life-interrupted of a city that is uninhabitable, and will be for hundreds of years to come. The people who evacuated from Pripyat weren’t allowed to take any of their belongings with them, because everything in the city has been rendered lethally radioactive by the fallout from Chernobyl. No baby photos, no wedding china, no heirloom quilts. Nothing. They’re all memento mori now. Just like Jesus, smiling benevolently down from that dome, all the beauty of a silent Armageddon spread out in the streets around him.

More than seven million people are eligible to receive assistance as “Chernobyl victims.” Seven million people who have been victimized on a cellular level, people whose very DNA has been poisoned.

I think I’ll keep walking, turning off the lights, writing to my elected representatives to demand safe alternative fuel sources, and setting my thermostat at 85 in the summer and 65 in the winter. It’s not perfectly comfortable, but at least it’s not leaking roentgens into my body.

*My modest Methodist grandmother would turn over in her grave to hear her habit of leaving every light in the house on described as “decadent.”

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My mother once apologized to me for giving birth to me in Oklahoma.  It was one of those moments when life imitates art, or at least life imitates a King of the Hill episode.  The one in which Hank Hill’s long-suffering mother apologizes to him for having gone into labor while in New York City.  It turns out that Texan of all Texans…not a Texan.  For Hank, the news is devastating.  For me, not so much.

My mother is a Kansan by birth, as is my father, as are their parents and their parents before them.  (With the exception of one streak of Coloradan running in my mother’s veins, courtesy of her great-grandfather, Coyote Monty Cook.)  My sisters are all Kansans.  My cousins are all Kansans.

I am an Okie.

It’s a shameful business, but I suppose her apology was as much about what had taken her to Oklahoma in the first place: my father.  Both things leave me in an awkward position of explaining my origins.  Obviously, not as awkward a position as say, Superman trying to explain the whole thing with Krypton.

All the same, I find myself saying things like, “Well, I’m an Okie, but I’m a Kansan.”  I was born in Oklahoma, spent my first few years in Oklahoma, and was raised almost on the border of Oklahoma, but I still think of myself as a Kansan.  It makes me a little sad on those occasions when I have to put down my place of birth, a reminder I’m not really a Kansan.  My passport is a slap in my face, declaring me to the world’s customs officers as an Okie.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Similarly, my father’s early defection from my life leaves me saying things like, “Well, my biologicial father is the convicted felon.  My dad was a Command Sargeant-Major in the Army.”  It makes for an interesting study in language.  Words that start out as synonyms shift as they acquire more subtle shades of meaning.

My dad, he’s a Kansan, too.

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It was the wind

Some people left Kansas because of the wind.

Many people left Kansas when the wind blew away the soil and the soil blotted out the sun.  When death and misery became more readily available than bread and water.

My people stayed.  I don’t know if that makes them stupid, or fatalistic, or just stubborn. We didn’t leave, even when it was the smart thing to do.  We’re certainly not going to leave now.

I left when I was younger, wandered around the world, and came back to Kansas to write. It was the wind after all.  It carried dust into the house all during my childhood and turned my hair into a rat’s nest.  When I got too far away from it, though, I felt unsteadied.

As though I’d been out walking in the wind and it suddenly stopped.  As though I were going to fall down without something to oppose me.

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