A review of The Elk in the Glade by Bruce E. Whitacre

Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp

The Elk in the Glade:
The World of Pioneer and Painter Jennie Hicks
by Bruce E Whitacre
Crown Rock Media
Oct 2022, $20, 70 pages, ISBN: 978-1-946116-25-3

A century-long family saga focusing on the author’s great-grandmother, a landscape painter named Jennie Hicks, dubbed the Nebraska Grandma Moses, Bruce Whitacre’s The Elk in the Glade is a charmingly quintessential American story of pioneers going west. They start out from Cleveland, Ohio, in 1882, when three-year-old Jennie’s widowed father Horace remarries, and he and his new wife Mary move their family beyond the Platte River to the area of southwest Nebraska that would come to be known as the Hi-Line, a string of small towns – Kearney, Farnam. Moorefield, Curtis, et al. – deep in the agricultural bread basket of the nation.

Whitacre makes it clear from the start that this is family folklore handed down over generations at Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas celebrations and other family gatherings. Indeed, the second poem, “Jennie at Thanksgiving,” introduces us to the central figure, now a toothless old lady who is hard of hearing, her food “ground to mush” so that she’s able to eat. “She gums away fitfully.”

And yet, she loves to tell her story. “She grows younger in telling / about blizzards, sod houses, wagons fording the river.” Whitacre introduces us right away to Jennie’s three girls, Esther, Dorothy and Ruth, about whom we will learn more as the story progresses. Jennie tells him her story in Aunt Ruth and Uncle Glen’s cozy farmstead.

So – sit back and listen.

Jennie starts her story with a memory of Christmas oranges, a luxury her father has brought to their austere prairie home. Little Jennie brings the bowl of oranges to the guests.

The night froze in her memory like crystals on the panes,
melting into a tale from time to time, like now,
for me, then freezing again for the next blue hour.

The story jumps forward a decade. Jennie is now a young lady with an admirer named Cal. But she yearns to return to Cleveland, where another admirer, her cousin Robert, waits for her, with his brother Rollie.

None of these romances works out, leaving Jennie feeling lonely and spinsterish, but more importantly, in Cleveland, she falls in love with painting. All of this is related in the long poem, “Cleveland Gallery.” She experiments with brushes, canvas, oils and turpentine.

Nothing was as like as she wanted, at first,
but soon under her touch the canvas came alive,
landscapes especially. She could paint
snow on a mountain so cold it burned your nose;
you could breathe the pine air.

When Robert spurns her at a New Year’s Eve party, December 31, 1899, she decides to return to Nebraska – where she discovers that her prairie beau Cal is engaged to Sally Ricketts.

Of course, we already know that Jennie had a family. Whitacre teases out the charming courtship of Arthur, the odd son of the odd couple, Horatio and Catherine Whitaker. Somewhat snobbish, Catherine has gone to Jennie, a poor seamstress, for a gown for the Grand Army of the Republic picnic at Medicine Creek, and she notices Jennie’s painting, The Elk in the Glade, hanging on her wall. When she learns that modest Jennie is the artist, Catherine decides she must be the suitable mate for her son Arthur; Jennie is a woman of culture, unlike most of the rubes in town. Though the two will fall in love on their own, Catherine’s matchmaking is no small part of their getting together.

Color reproductions of several of Jennie’s paintings are included in the book, including The Elk in the Glade, Esther’s Mountain Meadow (Esther is the name of her oldest child), The Horse Trader and The Lions. “Pride at the Shore” is a sort of ekphrastic poem inspired by this  final painting.

In the poems, “Cassandra in the Depression,” “Dorothy in the Middle,” “Gillette,” and “Bombing with Ruth,” Whitacre sketches the personalities and fates of Jennie and Arthur’s three daughters. The poet’s father is the son of Esther and her first husband Harlan, who dies at the age of twenty-eight as the result of an appendicitis. Though Esther will remarry to a man named Ferris, she and her son moved in with Arthur and Jennie for a time, and no doubt the bond between Whitacre’s father and his grandmother strengthened. This is reflected in the poet’s own obvious admiration for his great-grandmother.

Whitacre also includes some non-family related episodes, such as the strange tale of “The Neighbor with the Saber,” about a reclusive stranger who suddenly shows up in Farnam, on the Hi-Line, who seems to be a veteran of Custer’s Last Stand. His body is discovered lying in bed in his full blue dress uniform of Custer’s doomed Seventh Cavalry, his saber by his side. He is buried in Farnam Cemetery “with his mysteries and full military honors.”

After Arthur dies in a tragic farming accident, Jennie eventually moves to a little house in Farnam (“Coming to the White House”), where she resumes her job as a seamstress; only, her daughter Ruth discovers she is also painting again and is stunned by her mother’s landscapes. Jennie is around sixty at this point. Soon enough, word spreads

and Jennie was in the picture trade.
Two or three pictures sold a week:
mountain landscapes, wildlife, horses.
She copied prints, calendars, postcards
and charged by the size.
She was a seamstress who sewed in oils,
to a pattern, often on demand.

Jennie becomes famous, her paintings sold all across the country and around the world. She is interviewed on the radio and in newspapers.

Jennie Hicks died in 1977, at the age of ninety-eight. She was buried in Farnam Cemetery, alongside Arthur, Horace, Horatio, Catherine, Harlan and all the others in her expansive family. The Elk in the Glade is Bruce Whitacre’s tribute to them all. It is a lovely and delightful read that brings the America of pioneers and homesteaders alive.