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Opulence, Kansas is More Than a Youth Novel

Opulence, Kansas by Julia Stielstra
Opulence, Kansas by Julia Stielstra

Hello, High Plains Radio Readers! My name is Julie Stielstra, and I now (finally!) live in Ellinwood, Kansas. I’m a librarian, a reader, and also the author of the novel Opulence, Kansas. You could call it a youth novel, or a young adult novel, because the main character – the daughter of a high-flying Chicago financier – is a teenager. It’s a coming-of-age story, a fish-out-of-water tale, a small-town family saga: the story of one summer spent on the hot golden Kansas prairie.

Katie Myrdal’s father is dead – abruptly and by his own hand. Her parents’ marriage had been tense and distant. At the funeral, Katie meets an uncle and aunt she barely knew existed except for the occasional Christmas card. Her father had fled the family farm decades ago to make it in a bigger, faster, flashier world. As her mother struggles with the wreckage of their lives, Katie is offered an escape to the small town of Opulence, confided to her Uncle Len and Aunt Maggie’s care deep in the middle of the “flyover state.” She plummets from a 19th-floor Gold Coast condo to a tall old yellow house, from Porsches and Escalades to dusty pickup trucks, from packed expressways to gravel roads, from hustling strangers to chatty neighbors. Among them is Travis, a young man with scars both emotional and physical, and gifts he’s reluctant to share. Katie begins to forge new bonds: with an aging uncle and aunt, with friendly chickens and church picnics. And she and the sometimes-prickly Travis begin a cautious, tentative dance with friendship, loss, and risk. She learns to repair fence and discovers the joys of greasy burgers hot off a local diner’s onion-smeared grill.

Travis shyly shares with her some hidden treasures of the quiet town of Opulence – which once deserved its hopeful name: a derelict underground tavern once peopled by cowboys and saloon girls, an old opera house left to dust and mice, where an occasional lonely performance may emerge from a wounded heart. Also to emerge are family secrets and sorrows that crisscross Katie and Travis’s histories, which may bind or separate them – or both.

In Opulence, Kansas, values and experiences collide: urban and rural, youth and age, wealth and struggle, health and illness, family ties and wrenching losses. Katie Myrdal, cocooned in privilege, protection, big-city amenities and opportunities, has her eyes opened to realities of addiction, poverty, the steeple-shattering winds of a Kansas summer storm, and grocery-store coffee. They are also opened to histrionic sunsets splashing across the sky, to wild turkeys strutting in the front yard, the burnished elegance of an old pocket watch, the whine of cicadas, the steadfast love of an aging couple, and the throb in the voice of a young man singing an old love song.

Opulence, Kansas is a love letter written to a place by an outsider who fell in love late in life. I set out wanting Katie to tell some of my story for me, but – as often happens – she decided to tell her own, and I did my best to help. She wouldn’t want anyone to think only people her own age should read it – her Uncle Len and Aunt Maggie would like it. I think you will too.

The book is Opulence, Kansas, from Meadowlark Press in Emporia, Kansas (where else could it be?).

This is Julie Stielstra, for the High Plains Radio Readers Book Club Summer Reading List.

Julie Stielstra
Julie Stielstra

Julie Stielstra occupies an old farmhouse on seven acres, four miles from the geometric center of Kansas with partner Forest, six cats, two dogs, and a whole lot of visiting birds. She is the author of the award-winning youth novel Opulence, Kansas (Meadowlark Press), and over three dozen published short stories and essays.

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