Flip to nearly any page in Jean Studebaker’s memoir There’s No Place Like Home and you’ll find an elaborate slice of life on a Kansas farm. Studebaker not only shares the smallest peculiarities of farming, but she conveys them in a way that magnifies their rugged beauty. Her tale renders back-breaking labor and unpredictable weather patterns as gifts to be cherished. Even self-described city slickers will be impressed.
Yet all of Home’s gorgeously realized vignettes never jell into a compelling story. It’s lovely to a fault, hearkening back to a time when people weren’t tied to their iPads and Blackberry phones. What’s missing is the sense that the author is building a saga to span the decades. It’s like a collection of micro-short stories in search of a narrative thread.
Home is a love letter to the sprawling state of Kansas, a land where the weather can be rough but the Kansans are of sturdy enough stock to survive. The narrator gives every member of her family their due, whether it’s her father who overcame a heart condition to lead a full, vigorous life or a grandmother who endured the sexism of her era without losing her sense of self. In between, we bask in stories of rough-and-tumble roosters, lawnmower mishaps and other elements of farm life.
Studebaker’s prose is alternately plain spoken and profound and her admiration for her fellow farmers palpable. (One wishes the narrator had shared some of the less admirable people she met along the way; her unbridled embrace of her neighbors can get monotonous.) Home even includes a handful of Kansas-approved recipes to complete the avuncular spirit. What it fails to deliver is the kind of evolving character arcs that would knit all of these elements together into a more propelling narrative.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.