Bone Chalk (Hardcover)
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Ride shotgun down the back-roads of the Great Plains as Jim Reese becomes Willy the Wildcat at a small Division II school, drives a tractor into an outbuilding his first week on the job, and discovers, sometimes with horror, the truth—after immersing himself in the lives of strangers, friends, family and prisoners. Travel to San Quentin prison in San Francisco Bay where he has full access and isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions. Join him in a superstore pharmacy prophylactic aisle. Explore teenage angst and desire with him at a Midwest skating rink. Accompany him as he archives his mother-in-law’s peculiarities, often verbatim.
Reese was born in Iowa, but moved to Omaha at age seven where he grew up in what passes for "the big city" in Nebraska. He married into a farm family, moved to northeast Nebraska, and this book captures the disparity between urban and rural America. He takes sympathetic, comic, and serious looks at the people he writes about, offering a humorous and equally critical view of himself. He captures those moments in the belly of the heartland, where all are welcome to the strangeness of good company and rural behaviors, and in doing so, these essays record the zeitgeist of the time. The intersections of Reese’s stories about the incarcerated or genuine mid-western sensibilities allow readers to take the reins and become part of his ongoing journey to find his place in the world. Reese is a wandering minstrel, and as the author of four widely-praised books of poetry, he knows how to blow our hearts sideways.
"JIM REESE'S NEW BOOK is what we might think of as 'an evening's entertainment,' and it's an enriching entertainment at that, witty and funny, shadowed by feelings deeper and more meaningful, a kind of operetta in prose, and it will stick with me for a good long while. I recommend it."
—Ted Kooser, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, 13th Poet Laureate of the United States
“JIM REESE... HE'S OUR MARK TWAIN of this century … Jim writes about the everyday experience, and he, in my view, is therefore America’s poet.”
—Grace Cavalieri, from the Poet and the Poem at the Library of Congress
"WE CALL IT THE HEARTLAND, but we seldom drop by for a visit. Jim Reese catches the dying fire of the small town wasteland that staggers on with meth, desire, and neglect. These loving poems open the door to the real little house on the prairie. Time to step inside and finally have one honest moment with the forgotten center of our people.”
— Charles Bowden, author of Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields
“Jim Reese’s Bone Chalk is like a strong shot of rye, a piercing look from a stranger, or a stray bullet in the dark. There is a startling honesty that slams you against the wall by the throat and holds you there until you see the truth, a unique perspective into the world of true crime from a gifted writer.”
—Craig Johnson, author of the Walt Longmire novels, the basis for the Netflix drama Longmire
“In Bone Chalk, Reese transports his readers to the Great Plains with the narrative ease of someone chatting with a friend on the front porch. Sometimes tender and sometimes gripping, this memoir remains tethered to the soil and to the people with such a strong sense of place that the reader feels as though they had been there, walking beside the author, the whole time.”
—Allen Eskens, bestselling author of The Life We Bury and Nothing More Dangerous
"Bone Chalk is the best kind of memoir, an expansive and bracing tour of a region and people both eminently familiar yet particular enough to feel like another universe. Fast, funny, dark, and surprisingly moving. Jim Reese is a brilliant tour guide of the Plains."
—Stephen Markley, author of Ohio
“How does one locate and unlock the Middle West? I like to look for the inscribed grid of township squares, that checkerboard from above, sometimes punctuated with the Zen enso of a center pivot irrigation rig. Jim Reese, in this excellent and exacting collection, replicates that layout in many of these essays—topographies of stark juxtapositions, intricate quilted collages, high contrast and high definition chainmails of the Middle Border. Hopscotched and hobnailed, the pieces of Bone Chalk map out, again and again, the famous paradox of place where one is in the heart of the heart of the country at the same time one finds oneself in the middle of nowhere.” —Michael Martone, author of The Moon Over Wapakoneta and Brooding
“Jim Reese is an American original! His voice rises out of the Great Plains to bear witness to the foibles, folkways and oddities of living in the small towns and villages that are sometimes only a collection of a few dots of light to planes flying overhead in the dark. Reese has an easy voice to listen to—playful with a hint of deeper truths about the complex soul of the Midwest: dark and hopeful as we work hard to make lives in places beset by hard winters, hot summers, and constant economic uncertainty. Yet living here is full of humor and joy in the everydayness Reese chronicles with surprise and tenderness.”
—Jonis Agee, author of The Bones of Paradise
“Like that longed-for drive down a Midwestern road, these brilliant essays introduce us to a startling diversity of people and places—rural and urban, wild and domestic, comic and cautionary. Our guide is the incomparable Jim Reese, whose wit and wisdom help us re-learn the value of listening, of loyalty and love and a good day’s work. A writer who, as he says of his own beloved grandfather, is “a man more fully present and alive than most.”
—John T. Price, author of Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships
“One of the beauties of Jim Reese’s Bone Chalk is its invitation to the outsider to participate and to learn. Take, for example, “How to Become a Regular.” Like Pauline and Linus Cummins, who “pause between bites of pie to see for themselves,” the reader is asked to listen to locals playing euchre, “wide eyes showing all their white, hands hold five, no bid, Busch Light,” to hear complaints about corn prices, to “laugh at the jokes,” and, ultimately, to “talk about what you know.” Throughout the book, we become familiar, as the author does himself—city kid from Omaha—with a unique landscape, culture, and people. Being a “regular” means being part of the small town and the surrounding rural community, knowing the stories and making stories. Reese doesn’t write merely about assimilation, however; he writes about earned belonging to the habit of local, where there exists a “faith in all things that matter.”
—Mark Sanders, author of Landscapes with Horses; publisher of Sandhills Press
“In Bone Chalk, his first collection of nonfiction, Jim Reese brings the trademark honesty and humor of his poetry to the longer form, and the results are remarkable. His eye for detail and his empathy for those who live and work in the heartland is stronger than ever. He’s still got his punch, direct and powerful, raw and refined. Whether he’s looking forward or back, his vision is clear-eyed, laser-sharp, and full of heart.”
—Jim Daniels author of Eight Mile High
“Jim Reese is the chronicler of the back roads and broken down byways of America. He’s in love with small-town palaver and High Plains hi-jinx. Bone Chalk is a true original.”
—Brent Spencer, author of Rattlesnake Daddy: A Son’s Search for his Father
“The physical distances between Midwestern places like Omaha, Nebraska and Yankton, South Dakota are not that great, but the cultural expanses run wide and deep. In Bone Chalk, Jim Reese takes the reader into the profound vastness that defines the Great Plains. In this humorous and poignant memoir, the deepest recesses of the mysterious Heartland take on light, gain dimension, and rise into living color. Step onto Main Street, visit the local watering hole, drive the backroads to the farm, read the quirky bumper stickers of the Midwest, and watch empathy and understanding bloom with each new chapter. Love abides on every page of this wonderful meditation of place.”
—Debra Marquart, author of The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere
About the Author
JIM REESE is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Great Plains Writers’ Tour at Mount Marty College in Yankton, South Dakota. Reese’s poetry and prose have been widely published, and he has performed readings at venues throughout the country, including the Library of Congress and San Quentin Prison. Reese’s awards include First Place in the 2018 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Awards, a 2018 Distinguished Achievement Award from Mount Marty College, and a Distinguished Public Service Award in recognition of his exemplary dedication and contributions to the Education Department at Federal Prison Camp Yankton. His books include These Trespasses (The Backwaters Press, 2005), ghost on 3rd (New York Quarterly Books, 2010), and Really Happy! (New York Quarterly Books, 2014). A fourth collection, Dancing Room Only, is forthcoming by New York Quarterly Books in 2020.
From essay to essay, Reese bemusedly works to sort it out—blessedly, without a hint of Garrison Keillor’s labored folksiness. In one comic piece, Reese recalls his ill-fated stint as Willy the Wildcat. . . . alcohol, come-ons, and physical abuse all came with the job. . . . But the narrative’s true centerpiece is an essay reconciling his childhood fears growing up in Omaha with his hesitance to teach writing in prisons, something he’s done for a dozen years regardless. There, he masterfully weaves his personal history with observations of the prison system both intimately (in the prisoner’s writings, their tattoos, the strict regulations) and broadly (the troubled prison system, race and class divides). . . . the variety is the appeal, and Reese is skilled in many registers. . . . An eclectic, appealingly no-nonsense set of appreciations of the heartland.
…Reese’s central concern is nothing less than the nature of evil and how best to deal with it. His school-boy experience of city-wide panic in Omaha during a wave of killings, and a few years later the murder of a friend, leave no room for naiveté or a Hollywood-style glamorization of crime…Reese also knows that the difference between a man on the street and a man in a cell is most often no more than a bad decision…This effort to change the lives of these men charges Reese’s teaching. And it will charge readers of this book…
—Cleveland Review of Books
The publication of this collection announces Jim Reese as a major writer on the Midwest in all its shades — lively and bright, somber and muted, violent and dark. Readers of all backgrounds will come away from his writings with a deeper understanding of the Midwest and of the human spirit itself.
—Omaha World Herald
This author has the ability to morph from “Green Acres” scenarios into situations more suitable to “Breaking Bad” without missing a beat. The reader will be transported from Fordyce, Nebraska to San Quentin prison with the turn of a page… Reese, finds universal truths in his work. Readers will discover that love of family, decency, honesty, and a sense of humor are not limited to any particular region of the country.
—Lincoln Journal Star
South Dakota writer Jim Reese’s new book BONE CHALK is a collection of rural life, written with the thoughtful story-telling skills that we expect from a practiced poet…Much of this book is good humor about the beautiful idiosyncrasies of country living. However, one of the longest and most serious chapters is Reese’s reckoning with crime, violence and the prison culture. Few writers have gained such a close-up view of life behind bars in South Dakota.
—South Dakota Magazine
Bone Chalk is Midwestern Americana at its best. Ringing of truth down to the last thought and gesture, Reese creates a modern portrait of small town life; one Norman Rockwell definitely wouldn’t recognize. Built on prose that never fusses or falters, humor, and the endless intrigues that are there in everyday life—if you just know where to look—this is the sort of book you’ll pick up and finish in one sitting and be glad you did.
—The Nervous Breakdown
…The longest essay in the book, “Never Talk to Strangers—12 Years in Prisons and What Criminals Teach Me,” is a compilation of short pieces that center around a single question, “Why?” Included here are the John Joubert killings in Nebraska, as well as the murder of a good friend of Reese’s while she was babysitting. Juxtaposed to such memories are Reese’s present-day interactions with inmates in his job teaching writing in prisons. The central question is ever present. Why do criminals do what they do? …Yet Bone Chalk is not all seriousness, and Reese is also quite adept at sharing the more humorous aspects of his life… In this debut memoir, Jim Reese shares a wide variety of personal experiences that few readers would be able to relate to in any other way….And if throwing the door open to new experience is one of the reasons you choose to read, Bone Chalk is definitely your book.
—North American Review