Tuesday, September 12, 2006
IN SHORT; NONFICTION 
By FRAN HANDMAN

Published: March 25, 1990

GREAT PLAINS PATCHWORK: A Memoir by Marilyn Coffey. (Iowa State University, $21.95.) The novelist Marilyn Coffey has put together an entertaining, insightful collection of stories, combining fact and legend, about her beloved central plains between the mid-1880's and the late 1950's. ''Like a speck on the eastern horizon appears a wagon loaded with Coffeys,'' who in 1885 migrated west to the Great Plains from Illinois. 

There were 10 of them - great-grandfather James, his wife, Mary, their seven sons and a daughter. The Coffey boys were a raucous bunch who liked a good joke, usually physical, and would try anything once - great-uncle Ben even entered a ''bear-wrassling'' contest and won. Stories of the family are integrated with graphic firsthand descriptions by survivors of the natural disasters that periodically struck the Plains - floods, grasshopper infestations, tornadoes, man-made mischief on a grand scale. Ms. Coffey offers insights on what it is to grow up in Middle America. It ''gives one a different perspective on history than the typical Easterner has, an inside-out view.'' As a child, she ''never doubted for an instant'' that she ''was dead center in the middle of everything . . . a world narrowed by dust storms, bread lines, and Al Capone.'
Great Plains Patchwork lyrically chronicles the “wondrous strange” Great Plains, a grassland with no equal on earth. Join author, poet and prose stylist Marilyn Coffey as she follows her family’s traces from the 1880s, when her great-grandfathers broke sod, to 1959. Linger with her as she skillfully stitches together historical research, myth, family legend, and memory to recreate a now-lost world. An ancient world, sixty-five million years old. A gorgeous world of glittering flowers and native grasses tangled in a wild profusion webbed by buffalo and Indian paths. A funny world filled with raucous, Irish-American humor. A terror-fraught world of drought, dust storms, and grasshopper hordes. Of dizzying tornadoes, violent thunderstorms, and lethal lightning bolts. Of rowdy roughhousing, record-busting bank robbers, World War II heroes, Teamsters’ Union battles, and mass murderers.

Not only is Great Plains Patchwork unique for its author’s voice and its patchwork construction, but also for its location – the often-overlooked yet pivotal central plains – and its subject. What happened to the descendants of the second wave of immigration is rarely written about and even more rarely by a woman. Until now.


NEW YORK TIMES 
reviews Marilyn's Book:  
Great Plains Patchwork