on 19 April 2012
This is one of those deliciously slow, gentle reads that draws you quietly into another world, another experience. I was captivated from the very beginning, not just by the evocative descriptions of this extraordinary landscape but by the way the author so effortlessly linked the present to the past, so that through his eyes we caught a fascinating glimpse of what life must have been like for the early pioneers of the Wild West, and how it still is, for those with the stamina and stoicism to live there still. Not many of us would have the guts to spend six months in such an isolated spot, like Wilkinson did, but it's intoxicating to read about it from the comfort of an armchair. He is a natural raconteur, and his passion for the place, his delight in the eccentric, his humour and his humanity are irresistible.
on 19 April 2012
As someone who can't live without his mobile and his ipad
I can't imagine what possesses a man to go into a virtual wilderness
for six months and experience the hardships of the Wild West. But
this guy did just that, and I was completely captivated by his descriptions
of the landscape and the people (scarce) and creatures (in plenty)
he lived among. I loved the historical links with the past. What an insight.
A really delightful book. Read it.
on 22 December 2014
I am a fan of travel books, but this is a travel book with a difference. Instead of travelling around his chosen territory, Alan Wilkinson embeds himself in it for 6 months, to feel the pulse and to get under the skin of his subject. The subject is the Sandhills of Nebraska, part of the Great Plains of the American Mid West, originally home of Native Americans and then of a hardy breed of immigrant pioneers, my forebears among them. It is now largely ranch land, home to more cows than people, with a scattering of small functional townships amid a wealth of wild life, mostly but not all benign: the grasshoppers and the rattlesnakes both feature strongly in Alan Wilkinson’s experience. The weather too is a major player, often extreme, sometimes magnificent. The evocative topography of the Niobrara River and its banks is vividly described. The life of the people who farm the land and raise the cattle is not easy, but Alan Wilkinson paints a picture of a hard working, resilient and big-hearted community who can play as hard as they work. He is particularly interested in the local writers, specifically Maria Sandoz, whose life and work he explores in the book.
I found the book fascinating, both because of my own family connections but also because of the contrasts between this place and places familiar to me and to Alan Wilkinson, the sprawling urban communities and soft hillsides of England. The author has an engaging writing style and combines curiosity, wonder and wit to produce a fascinating and deeply sympathetic portrait of a little-known place and its history. I loved it.
on 29 July 2014
This is a beautifully written and beguiling tale of Alan Wilkinson's six months in a house in deepest rural Nebraska. Ostensibly there to research the home lands of the writer Mari Sandoz the book becomes a mixture of homage, exploration and survival. The homage aspect is dealt with in a gentle and insightful fashion and focuses mainly on the moot question of Sandoz's father, not a nice man by all accounts but a man who, in his daughter's eyes, represented a heroic figure in the way he forged a new life for himself in America after travelling from Europe (or possibly escaping, as a mystery hangs over his departure from his old home). Wilkinson's explorations of his locale are entertaining as he is adept at describing both land, weather, flora and fauna, and his reactions to them. His hosts and the people of Nebraska offer a generosity of spirit that underpins the book with a sense of belonging to a particular area that Wilkinson writes so well about. The survival aspect of the book is possibly the most entertaining part as he is regularly set upon by all manner of 'visitors' as the six months progresses through the seasons from deep snow and freezing conditions on his arrival to the vagaries of a hot summer. Mice, grasshoppers and bugs and flies of all kind assault the house and his valiant attempts at battling them and growing his own food in the garden highlight the very personal conflict of life in such circumstances that is so important in this book. The bull snakes in the cellar make a laundry session less than easy and regular self-checks for ticks are essential. All in all this is a thoroughly entertaining book and I would urge anyone to search out both a copy of this and any of Mr Wilkinson's other books as he writes with a clarity and precision that whatever tale he tells takes you directly to the heart of the matter.
on 11 March 2013
Alan Wilkinson has the masterly ability to turn a heap of rocks or stones, a thunder cloud or sea of grass into a written work of art with a few descriptive, evocative words. In The Red House on The Niobrara, he tells of his six-month sojourn into the American West following in the footsteps of an early 20thc writer Mari Sandoz whose work he has long admired. This is not his first foray into the USA and the country, I feel, is almost his spiritual home; and yet,in true English fashion, he makes the isolated Red House his. He clears it of bugs and mosquitoes, digs a garden and plants vegetables, bakes bread, makes tea and at sundown stands in his doorway with a beer in his hand. He is home.
Although he is alone, he doesn't appear to be lonely as he walks by the meandering river where the cedar trees grow, tramps the hills and plains of Sandhills, Nebraska, noting the plants, the grasses, wild life and the songbirds, taking photographs which appear in this journal and becoming friends with the locals, the ranching community, who invite him into their lives to watch and take part in cattle branding and turkey hunting. The only things he dislikes are the snakes, particularly the 'rattlers,' the mice that share his food, and the mosquitoes. For the rest, the weather, rain, snow, and sun in equal measure, the open skies, the 6000 acres of land that are his to explore, fulfil his hunger to know this part of Nebraska and specifically Mari Sandoz who awakened his interest many years before, and in finding her, he found himself.
An excellent, evocative read for those of us armchair enthusiasts of the outdoors lacking in Wilkinson's thirst for adventure.
on 25 February 2013
I found this beautifully illustrated book a charming and easy-to-read account of AW’s 6 month stay in Nebraska. Essentially it is his diary of the time that he spent there in 2011. He stayed in a remote house in the Sandhills area and he beautifully describes the countryside, wildlife and changing weather as well as the various visitors that he has. He had to constantly adjust from complete solitude for a few weeks to having various friends and acquaintances staying with him and then back to being on his own again. I believe the main purpose of his visit was to research further into the life of Mari Sandoz but also to experience a similar lifestyle to the early pioneers of the late 1800s to the turn of the 20th century.
The book is full of AW’s excellent photographs which really help bring his narrative to life. Although I read the book on my black and white Kindle you can access the photographs separately to see them in all their colourful glory on a PC or laptop. Details of where to find them are given at the front of the e-book.
AW endures much during his stay – heavy snows, blistering heat, thunderstorms, hailstones, torrential rain, insects galore and deadly snakes. How he manages to stick it out for 6 months is testament to his grit and determination because the conditions in which he finds himself are certainly not for the faint hearted. Having said that though, once you have seen his beautiful colour photos perhaps you can understand why he wanted to stay so long.
I would thoroughly recommend this book as an excellent insight into this particular area of the USA both past and present. A fascinating read.
on 27 May 2012
When I first opened this book I thought that it would be the excellent photographs that would interest me most, but from the very first sentence it was the words that drew me. It is a fascinating story of how a man, with a keen interest in the Great Plains, took himself to Nebraska and a remote hunting lodge to find out for himself what it must have been like for the Sandoz family to have lived there in the pioneering days of the American West. What particularly strikes me is not only the author's sheer determination to immerse himself in a harsh and, by our standards, primitive lifestyle in pursuit of his research, but that he could detach himself from his privations in order to record, in meticulous detail, his feelings and observations, both in word and picture, and present them in a way that makes a wonderfully human story.
Parts of that story read like grand Biblical narratives as the author struggles to protect his small vegetable garden from extremes of weather and plagues of grasshoppers, whilst at the same time warding off swarms of flying insects and the mice and snakes that seem determined to share his shack.
It is not only the author's attention to detail and his magical way with words that is so captivating. It is also his ability to weave a historical narrative onto a lyrical description of present life and landscape in this fascinating part of what was the Wild West. Above all it is his infectious joy and genuine delight in landscape that shines through every word. I wholeheartedly recommend this book.
on 13 May 2012
For a man who usually roams a British city's streets and is afraid of horses, Alan Wilkinson has a profound understanding of rural life in the American West, both past and present. It was the writings of the celebrated Mari Sandoz, 19th century native of the Nebraska Sandhills, that initially drew him to the area. Having it described to him as "De-so-late" became the prompt that made him up-sticks, cross an ocean, and live alone on the Niobrara for six months. He wanted to see the landscape and its people for himself and, like Mari Sandoz, he fell in love with the area.
Alan Wilkinson's descriptive writing is a delight, his humour and eye for detail enticing. I felt his apprehension during his encounters with rattle snakes and skunks, his enchantment with the blossoming spring flora, his awe in the face of hailstorms and towering thunderheads, the beauty of multi-coloured sunsets and the ever-present vastness of the sky - much of which he shares visually via 130 photographs set amid the text.
Into this mix is filtered the history of the Sandhills, of its early ranchers and sod-busting pioneers. Who but those of vision would plant orchards in near-sand and see them thrive: people who lived in dug-outs cut into the river bank, bore children and raised and educated them in a time when the gun was still the Law. Their descendants welcomed the writer with half an eye to an eccentric Englishman, but it is apparent from his writings that mutual respect grew on both sides.
This is a fascinating read which I unreservedly recommend, and although I read it on a b&w Kindle3 I soon also had it downloaded to Kindle4PC so as to view the accompanying photographs in their full glory, and I suggest you do, too. A well-deserved 5 stars.
on 29 April 2012
This is not normally the kind of book I read, however I am familiar with this author and knew of his stay at The Red House that is the basis of this book and so was intrigued and am very glad I found out more. This is wonderfully descriptive book which paints some fabulous pictures in the mind's eye. The reference to cloud spreading over the landscape like a huge grey tablecloth is one such example. It was good to learn what motivated the author not just for this stay but with his almost life long passion and fascination for the US of A. The book has given me a personal insight into who the author is with his great sense of humour showing through clearly. A fascinating read that gives you a sense of early America and what is was like for the settlers but then all I had to go on before was Little House on the Prairie! I thoroughly recommend this book.
on 8 May 2012
I reckon I'd last about six days, maybe a week, or until the first sighting of a snake, whichever came sooner, But six months? Yes, you'd have to be crazy, which Mr. Wilkinson clearly is not, unless you call a lifelong obsession with your subject and the unflinching nerve to seek out its roots no matter what the consequences crazy. The result of this obsession, however, is a work of absolute clarity which opens doors to the way life was and indeed still is, with all its struggles and delights. Here is a journey through time, history and landscape in which we are shown not told the way it was and is by an author who has the guts to get out there and meet a challenge most of us wouldn't consider for a minute. 292 pages, shame I could have stood a whole lot more.