Headlights on the Prairie

Essays on Home

Robert Rebein

At the long-term care facility where Robert Rebein’s father lands after a horrific car crash, a shadow box hangs next to each room, its contents suggesting something of the occupant’s life. In Headlights on the Prairie, Rebein has created a literary shadow box of sorts, a book in which moments of singular grace and grit encapsulate a life and a world.

In the tradition of memoirs such as Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky, these essays bring a storyteller’s gifts to life’s dramas, large and small. Following his award-winning turn on his hometown of Dodge City, Rebein takes us back to the high plains world where his family has farmed and ranched since the 1920s. It is a world populated by feedlot cowboys, stock-car drivers, and farm kids dreaming of basketball glory. Here too we find the darker tales of damaged young men returning from war, long-haul truckers addicted to crystal meth, and the sadly heroic residents of a small-town nursing home grandiloquently named Manor of the Plains.

“Robert Rebein knows the cultures of southwestern Kansas—the truck stops, race tracks,and feed lots, the intensity of the “fight” and of competitive sports, the long distance medical help, the appeal of dogs and horses as fellow creatures important to daily life. He also knows the risks, the terrors, the near misses, the uncontrollable weather, animals, and people. Life in southwestern Kansas has always been a gamble worth making, and Rebein—with wit, affection, and big-sky clarity—reminds us why.”

—Thomas Fox Averill, Writer-in-residence, Washburn University, editor of What Kansas Means to Me

Headlights on the Prairie is a marvelous book in the truest sense of the word: meaning, full of marvels. Read it for the ideas alone: they’re that rich, complex and surprising. Or read it for the prose, which is deceptively simple and straightforward. Robert Rebein’s sentences are like men with a job to do. They’re muscular, matter-of-fact, and un-fussy—in short, perfectly suited to his subject matter, which is growing up in, then growing into, the Midwest. As he looks back on what some might regard as the quieter moments that make up a life—a medical scare, middle school fights, stock car races, horse ownership, aging parents, a daughter’s driver’s test—Rebein invests them with power and poetry.”

—Jennifer Brice, associate professor of English, Colgate University

Whether contemplating a fiery crash at a race track, coming to terms with an aging parent, or navigating the last days of a beloved family dog, Rebein offers a subtle, unsparing, often moving look at the moments that go into making a writer and a man. Seen in sharp detail, and recalled from a distance, his is a story of how a man can leave his home on the prairie—and yet never really get out of Dodge.

About the Author

Robert Rebein is professor of English and chair of the Department of English at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis. His books include Dragging Wyatt Earp: A Personal History of Dodge City and Hicks, Tribes, and Dirty Realists: American Fiction after Postmodernism.