Nebraska means Willa Cather; Nebraska means Mari Sandoz; Nebraska means Standing Bear and the Oregon Trail and The Good Life and Brandon Teena and Warren Buffett and the Huskers and which-state-is-that-I-always-get-those-ones-in-the-middle-mixed-up. People who have never been to Nebraska announce, as soon as they find out where I live, that it’s so flat and red. They’re more certain of those truths than my experiential knowledge: where I actually live, on the suburban edges of Omaha, the Missouri River bluffs undulate our streets in vista-swooping bends and—for the record—my congressional district donated our electoral vote to Obama in 2008.
But my Nebraska is only one Nebraska; there is no single way to understand a landscape of genetically modified cornfields bordered by native coneflowers. Understanding life here, like anywhere, requires re-examination of the tropes and truths that have been slapped like stickers over inconvenient gaps in the packaging.
I think that’s why I was so delighted to see my under-voiced home brought into relief in Erica Trabold’s debut essay collection, Five Plots, which won the inaugural Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize and is forthcoming in November from Seneca Review Books. Five Plots wades into the enigmatic relationships between family and memory, where truth is seemingly as placid as the Platte River (which arcs just over Trabold’s hometown of Stromsburg, Nebraska), but re-examination reveals hidden eddies and drowned tree trunks, causing a re-route.
Trabold is a poet’s essayist, with a poet’s eye for craft at the sentence level. But Trabold is also an essayist’s essayist, tucking meaning inside the construction of each piece for the intrepid reader. In Five Plots, the “five plots” could easily be dismissed as a reference to the literal five pieces included in Trabold’s slim book, but while contemplating the essays, the reader finds herself thinking about many different ways to interpret an event, the many coexisting storylines which weave together into a memory. One is always highlighted when disclosing a story, but Trabold is reminding the reader that there are concurrent narratives occurring—she is only telling one, the one she wants to tell.
In Five Plots, five is a recurring number—there are the five grave plots in the titular essay, as well as the five deaths specifically referred to throughout the collection: in “Canyoneering,” the biological grandmother, whose death triggers her father’s adoption, as well as the biological grandfather whose death brings together her father and his scattered siblings; in “A List of Concerns,” her friend Kerry’s mother, whose death causes Trabold to reflect on the pain of friendships and home; in “Five Plots,” the death of Trabold’s cat, which forces a reflection on permanence and the inevitability of belonging, as well as the fifth death—a drifter to Stromsburg who was buried and “who alone laid claim to the ground” where the town cemetery was eventually built.
The drifter’s burial in “Five Plots” represents the best and worst of Trabold’s connection to her hometown: her ancestors took the drifter’s body and gave him a decent burial, adopting him into their town without knowing his history, an action which appeared to be generous but also secured the drifter, permanently, somewhere he did not belong. It is only upon reflection that Trabold sees the duality of the history she once accepted, and Five Plots is rife with that tension of codified memory counterbalanced against the malleability of examined memory.
This is evidenced in the first essay from the collection, “Canyoneering,” which is riddled with qualifications indicating the author’s uncertainty in plumbing the depths of her history. Only looking at the first page of the essay, Trabold writes:
The subterranean temperatures must have been a cool welcome.
My parents say I didn’t cry.
I assume I have always been attracted to the mysterious.
I am imagining it dingy.
This mistrust of her knowledge continues as Trabold contrasts the formation of caves and canyons with her family’s foundational history. The caves in “Canyoneering” are described as unexplored but ultimately finite; canyons, in this essay, are expansive, “the endless void,” but evidence of “the outright destruction of something.” Trabold leaves behind the caves to define herself as a canyoneer, “attempting to locate a place that has always belonged to[her]” where she can “learn the ways of destruction.” The goals are twofold: to trace the repercussions of actions back to the source of ruin, but also to find the fault lines in her family’s history so she can know what is not known.
Trabold’s father was adopted after his mother’s death—the first conflict in “Canyoneering” is centered at, “Tomorrow, they will introduce me to my biological grandfather for the first time.” Later, Trabold references her ancestors who emigrated from Sweden, grappling with both the lost history and the unknowable history of her family—biological and adopted—admitting, “it becomes easy to question identity, to whom you belong.”
The desire to belong while determining how to destroy that belonging is a central struggle of the book as a whole—Trabold is grateful for her homeland yet tethered to her homeland. In “A List of Concerns,” Trabold writes about the destruction of the prairie and the construction of what is now seen as “prairie,” and in doing so, draws parallels between the histories we tell ourselves. The prairie is a metaphor for codified narratives:
I’m not sure how it happened, but I’ve ventured beyond what I came to see. The end of the road, the limitless sky—I still haven’t found our prairie.
Trabold describes the childhood illusion of friendship, but also the difficulties in reexamining what she once trusted. Her friends in her hometown do not leave the place they were raised, as she does, and it is only later that she realizes, “No one told me the flowers growing on the side of the road were survivors, the native species with the will to cling on.”
Her friends accept their stasis, but Trabold is still trying to uproot herself, refusing to acknowledge her own place as a “native species.” When she returns to her town, she doesn’t want to be seen—she picks a flower, “rooted deep,” and notes “how quickly a wildflower wilts when severed from its root.” Trabold does not want to stay, nor does she want to leave. The essay concludes with native plant knowledge—the people who belonged on the prairie “used what they could find… to relieve the most basic kinds of pain.” The prairie, again, is an emblem of history and what can be known. Trabold uses what she has discovered in her time away from her town and her childhood friends to reexamine her behaviors and reconsider her assumptions.
“Tracks” is ostensibly about deer hunting, but also about the unknown future. While sitting in the deer stand during their endless wait for prey, Trabold’s friend talks to her about domestic things like a trip to Cancún and when she’s planning on having children. But Trabold throws in an undeveloped aside like a sharp wrench—“I hadn’t told anyone about my suspicion, what I thought had happened to my body”—and then she “changed subjects in a half whisper,” hinting at the uncertainty of a future beyond her control.
“Tracks” wrestles with permanence, watching the once-visible marks of existence (the deer tracks) fade into “a fragmented thought. A troubling memory. Evidence of an opportunity missed.” Trabold finally takes the reader by the shoulders for the first time in the collection and admits:
I knew my hometown was affecting me in ways I couldn’t control… [home] had always been a complication, wrapped in happiness and hurt.
The final image of a deer confronted by an uncertain threat is evocative of Trabold-as-narrator throughout Five Plots, sitting lightly on native ground, unsure whether to retreat deeper or bolt forward.
In “Borrow Pits,” an essay segmented into repeating sections like “Legacy,” “That Summer,” and “Tributary,” Trabold excavates the connections between the decisions of the past and their legacy on the future. The “Legacy” sections are voiced by her grandmother, who looks around her Nebraskan lakeside house decorated with “seashells from roadside stands in places seashells should not be—Colorado, Missouri, New Mexico—” and contemplates the complexity of permanency in establishing her home beside an artificially-created lake.
The italicized sections in the essay are centered on the actions of “the company,” which is following the demand for permanence by the settlers by digging up river rock to create concrete for houses. Those sections break up the ramifications of the company’s actions by juxtaposing the brutal alteration of the landscape around Trabold’s rural Nebraskan town near the Platte River against their legacy on the subsequent generations of settlers. The leavings of the company are the “borrow pits,” cratered holes in the land which the company craftily reframed as lakes, building resort housing developments around their perimeters, one of which attracted Trabold’s grandmother.
Salted throughout each of the italicized sections are visual borrow pits—open spaces between sentences which most often occur on either side of the repeated phrase They dug. They dug. The emptiness seems to indicate, to the reader, the stories which have been excavated or removed. The simplicity of They dug. They dug. repeats like the machines themselves, relentless and blunt.
The borrow pits are emblems of destruction, certainly, and also innovations of the endless pioneer spirit which pervades settler culture—find something and make it into what you want—but Trabold examines the repercussions of belonging to a landscape her ancestors have altered. She acknowledges the company’s digging was necessary to provide homes, but Trabold also sees the ruin which attends that creation. While the prairie of Nebraska permeates all five of the essays in the collection, in “Borrow Pits,” the dichotomy of Trabold’s homeland truly manifests in her identity, a tension which is strongest in the final section of “Borrow Pits” as Trabold recalls digging her own pits in the ground at school recess and being told to wipe the dirt—which was really her own freckles—off her face. In the final line, “I grew up telling people the freckles are what I like most about my body,” Trabold is acknowledging her complicity in belonging to a landscape which has been altered—and which has altered her. Her freckles are permanent, not “mud or sand or anything I could wash away,” but “kisses from a summer spent out in the sun.”
What Trabold loves most about herself—her freckles, the physical manifestation of her homeland’s imprinting—is something others have wanted to wash away, to remove. But Nebraska’s multiplicities and coexisting truths are embedded deep within Trabold, and the essays in Five Plots parallel those shape-shifting contradictions. As Trabold essays through her uncertainties, carefully peeling back layer after layer to examine the mutability of both landscape and memory, it’s easy for the reader to appreciate the evidence of synchronous experience, and, in doing so, appreciate Nebraska.