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Bruce E Whitacre
The Elk in the Glade
Based on personal memories and family oral history, Whitacre’s debut collection of sixteen poems traces the life and legacy of a family matriarch, his paternal great grandmother, Jennie Hicks. The daughter of American pioneers, she marries successful farmer, bearing him three girls, seeing them all married, only to outlive him and the farm. Once again alone and facing hardship, she transforms an almost forgotten hobby, her young girl dream, into a brilliant thirty-year career as a successful landscape painter, the future pride of her hometown, Farnam, Nebraska, and an important figure in American art. Lovers of American history, art, and strong female characters will enjoy these chronicles in verse.
In this richly descriptive book of poetry, Whitacre examines the life of landscape painter Jennie Hicks, who sold her work out of her home for more than 30 years. He starts with some background on Hicks—she and her family lived in southwest Nebraska for most of the twentieth century, giving them a chronologically broad yet distinctly Midwestern perspective on U.S. history. Hicks was also Whitacre’s great-grandmother, and his poems serve as artful retellings of the stories he heard growing up. “She loves to tell,” he writes in “Jennie at Thanksgiving.” “She grows younger in telling / about blizzards, sod houses, wagons fording the river, / until we are called to the long table in the narrow room.”

That sense of place, history, and domesticity glows throughout these absorbing verses, as Whitacre captures the bittersweet essence of Hicks’ challenging and at times traumatic life. As a child, her pioneer father dragged her mostly unwilling family from Ohio to the Nebraska prairie, and a sense of longing for home and family would follow her for the rest of her life. What stands out most are the little scenes that bring Hicks’ heartache and simple pleasures colorfully to life. In “Christmas Oranges,” she is delighted when her father gives the family a bowl of citrus fruit: “the only ones any of them would eat that year.” The poems follow Hicks as she learns to paint, marries—and later buries—her husband, and eventually grows old.

The book also includes several of Hicks’ oil paintings, which depict the mountains she left behind as a child along with various types of wildlife and forests of evergreen trees jutting toward the sky. Side by side with the paintings, Whitacre’s book serves as a deeply personal yet relatable account of one woman’s life and turn-of-the-century lifestyle—and clearly demonstrates why this talented painter and pioneer stands as someone to remember.

Takeaway: These richly descriptive and affecting poems examine the life of Midwestern landscape painter Jennie Hicks.

Great for fans of: Laura Donnelly, New Poetry from the Midwest.

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