Bad Kansas by Becky Mandelbaum (2017) – Fiction – Short Stories
This book was recommended by the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas. If I can have a moment to plug local bookstores, please patronize these wonderful establishments. I know it is hard to escape the ease of Amazon and I utilize a Kindle, but there is nothing better than local bookstores. I choose Bad Kansas primarily for my love of anything Kansas and the recommendation by Raven.
Bad Kansas is a collection of 11 short stories by Becky Mandelbaum. Mandelbaum resides in Washington state but is a Kansas native. It shines throughout the book. There are little tidbits scattered throughout the stories where locals can pick-up references to beloved landmarks like The Starlight Drive-in. Most of the stories take place in Wichita or Lawrence, which is nice for me who grew up in Wichita and now live in Lawrence.
Short stories are an underrated genre and many people do not read them often enough. They are perfect little bites when you need something to wrap-up in a few pages or are short on reading time.
Bad Kansas made me happy and sad. It made me laugh and made me feel like I want to cry. One of the characters mentions something that I have always known. No one really comes to Kansas for necessarily great reasons – you usually come for school or work. You never really find people who took a leap and said, I’m moving to Kansas! You hear that when people move to New York City or Denver, or L.A. But not Kansas.
Mandelbaum’s stories revolve around this idea that Kansas is something people are always trying to get away from. Kansas can be used as a scapegoat sometimes to blame our problems or worries on something that is an easy target and can’t fight back – many of the characters in the stories do the same. Kansas is a stable entity. It remains a flat place, with cities dotted throughout. While you may get a new movie theater or store or restaurant, it remains what it always has been. It is predictable. But it is reliable.
One of my favorite stories of the book is The Golden State. It centers around a girl who moves form Kansas to California with her boyfriend. All the promise lies in California, like we are always told. But the character soon realizes how much she misses home and what home means.
California was supposed to be better in every way: better food, better weather, better people. In movies, the West Coast was a utopia of beaches and liberal politics, hippies high-fiving scientists at the farmers market. Meanwhile, redwoods and cheap tacos and Yosemite! My Kansas friends feigned jealousy, although they too were heading out for other lands: Madrid, Seattle, a rustic lodge in the Rocky Mountains.
Her boyfriend, Alec, soon becomes someone she doesn’t really want to be around. She can’t find a job, and it almost feels like she doesn’t want to put down roots in the new, sunny non-humid atmosphere. I think these stories capture everything that I have always thought about Kansas. I only realized when I got older and lived in a different state how much I missed it. Now, that is not for everybody. I know a significant number of people who left the state and never looked back. But like the character in The Golden State, I always knew where home was and where home wasn’t. Home was always Kansas. And most of the time, eventually, you want to be home.
Bad Kansas won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and Mandelbaum is an established author with other novels and short stories available. This was a lovely book, with interesting and weird characters and plots, all neatly displayed with the backdrop of the Sunflower State.
Lover of the written word.