Though I only lived in Kansas for six years, parts of me still consider Kansas home: the place where my faith was formed and my consciousness about Anabaptists realized. Perhaps because of this, reading Raylene Hinz-Penner’s East of Liberal: Notes on the Land feels like a homecoming, an opportunity to remember the good gifts Kansas offers.
The memoir is about far more than Kansas, and readers need not have even stepped in the state to appreciate her exploration of land and notions of home and history. East of Liberal also traces the arrival of Mennonites to Kansas, complicating the story of the Mennonites’ 19th-century journey and settlement on land that had been taken from Indigenous people.
Hinz-Penner, who taught English at Bethel College and Washburn University, shows her love for language and literature in the lyrical sensibility that accompanies her philosophical and historical musings and in the poetry
that appears as interludes. Even de-scriptions of the sandy ground her father farmed are beautiful. The soil itself becomes a metaphor for a land both solid and shifting — land that gives and takes, that changes character with the seasons, as the wind blows.
East of Liberal is structured around the seasons. This organizing principle reflects the mind of a farmer. Spring represents new life and possibility: “No matter how pitiful the crops we had produced, there was optimism for the future: this year’s wheat would be better than last year’s. The cycle begins again. You get another chance.”
Hinz-Penner explores the history of the land around Liberal, in the southwest corner of Kansas, near the Oklahoma Panhandle. She considers the formation of the land, once covered by the Gulf of Mexico until, 70 million years ago, the water receded, leaving the sediment that became farmland. She imagines what the Spanish explorer Coronado might have seen when he walked through Kansas in 1541, looking for a village where people drank from jugs of gold.
Hinz-Penner weaves this narrative of the land with the history of its people and of the Mennonites, whose migration took them across other continents and water before arriving in the United States, drawn by the promise of uninhabited land on which to make a new, peaceful life. Turning her attention to this promise, Hinz-Penner revises the typical story of Mennonites in America, suggesting that the narratives we tell about migration are incomplete.
This notion is at the heart of East of Liberal, challenging mythologies about migration and the hardy willingness to farm on “no man’s land,” turning apparently desolate ground into wheat fields. In my youth I knew the story of Mennonite settlers and Turkey Red wheat through my family’s genealogy, the tale repeated of great-great-grandparents arriving in the 1870s by ship from Ukraine and accepting the railroad’s offer of farmland near Newton.
The story of how Mennonites came to Kansas reflects a colonizing mindset, Hinz-Penner says, because it fails to consider the Indigenous people who were forced off the land “by disease, legal concept, treaty, invisibility.” The Kansa and other tribes were pushed westward, removed “from the land our people then took up to farm. Thus my ancestors allowed themselves to believe the land was vacant.”
Even as she presses against pre-vail-ing mythologies, Hinz-Penner expresses gratitude for the land of her childhood, including the congregation that nurtured her. She admits that writing about Turpin Mennonite (across the state line in Oklahoma) is difficult, because while her church family was populated by “European settlers caught in the mythology of the doctrine of manifest destiny,” the congregation is “also the reason I love the land and will spend the rest of my life trying to de–romanticize and de-colonize my own life.”
This both/and approach is a theme in East of Liberal. Stories of childhood reflect love for the community and for her parents, who gave her and her sister the agency to be strong, independent young women who helped run the dairy operation and wheat harvest. At the same time, she recognizes that her settled childhood, on land that gave her family sustenance, probably happened because others were disenfranchised.
The book ends with Hinz-Penner and her sister preparing the family property east of Liberal for sale. She realizes their imprint is temporary, but the “land itself will remain the record of our being here as it holds the stories of our wanderings, evictions, relocations, settlements, resettlements — so many human footsteps before and after ours.”
Recording some of those footsteps, this excellent memoir is an important read for anyone, not just those who have called Kansas home.
Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newburg, Ore.
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