KEARNEY — Author Bryan L. Jones found some surprising customers for his book, “North of the Platte, South of the Niobrara.”
“For some reason we’ve sold a ton of books in Tennessee, North Carolina and California,” he said from his home in central Colorado. “That’s something I didn’t anticipate. A lot of these people have good stories of their connection to the Sandhills. One of the guys that just bought a book is an optometrist in Tennessee. He’s related to the Kicken family. Young Jules Sandoz married a Kicken.”
Sandhills author Mari Sandoz wrote about her father in the nonfiction book, “Old Jules,” published in 1935. The book detailed her father’s struggles as a pioneer in western Nebraska.
“It’s those little threads that lead everywhere,” Jones said of the connections to his readers. “I’m thoroughly enjoying the stories that I’m hearing.”
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Jones will present a reading from his book, “North of the Platte,” at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Kearney Public Library. Admission to the event is free.
The book features stories told by residents of the Sandhills — ranchers, schoolteachers, bull riders, veterans, historians, scientists and poets.
Beyond the written words, Jones finds that readers want to share their stories of the region between the two watersheds.
“I had one guy who only spent three years in the Sandhills in the 1950s,” Jones said. “He’s 94, I think. He’s said, ‘Oh, I remember this guy who had this brand,’ and ‘He had this many cattle.’ He’s already sent me a book’s worth of stories. Those stories are my bread and butter.”
Born in Central City, Jones grew up in Neligh, Chappell and Geneva. He studied at Roosevelt University in Chicago, the University of New Orleans, University of Nebraska at Kearney and Middlebury Breadloaf School of English in Vermont. The author taught school for three decades and spent 11 years operating a beef stocker-feeder operation.
Jones sees the linage of stories as stemming from the continuity of the people of the Sandhills.
“There’s a traditional ranching society there where, for the most part, ranches stay in the family,” he said. “There’s a continuation there. And then there’s not so many people and stories to keep track of. How many close neighbors are there in the Sandhills? And they’re all primarily engaged in assuring the welfare of animals. The weather events are truly shared. It’s not like I’m an internet whiz working from home.”
People who share a life, a community and the elements also tend to share stories about those things that affect their lives. Jones collected those stories and shared them in his book.
As for the people who left the Sandhills, they tend to keep their connections to their former communities. Jones often checks the connections of those people through social media. While those who leave form other relationships, the author found something interesting.
“People who left are in touch with the people who stayed,” Jones said. “It’s impressive with how connected all that is. I just figured that you have a very small number of people who continued to ranch so they’re probably interested in their own neighborhood. That’s not true. Many of the young people went to school at Curtis or Chadron so there’s another level of connectedness there.”
The strength of the stories comes from tradition. A rancher told Jones that “change in our business comes one funeral at a time.”
At the Kearney Public Library event, Jones said he will talk about the origins of the project as well as the contributions of Nebraska poets Don Welch and Bill Kloefkorn to the book.