The political and cultural history of Kansas is the backdrop for Milward’s (The Agriculture Hall of Fame, 2012) ambitious set of short stories.
The tales jump not only between locations, but between generations as well. “The Burning of Lawrence” concerns a fascinating if little-known historical event, a guerrilla raid on that city led by William Quantrill, who massacred civilians in a Confederate Civil War retaliation. The central plot about a conflicted soldier charging with Quantrill is gripping, but Milward dilutes it with frequent digressions including a less-compelling tale about a modern-day guitarist in the same town. Likewise, in “Good Men a Long Time Gone,” so much space is devoted to the characters’ back stories that the central act of violence loses its impact. The most effective story is the closing title piece, one of the few here that’s tight and focused. A Bill Ayers–type character who was involved in revolutionary student protests during the 1960s is now a college professor dealing with divorce, a failed affair with a student, and the repercussions from his past. Yet he ultimately loses his job for reasons that have nothing to do with the above and everything to do with the financial struggles facing academia in the present day.
A few of the stories are strong and memorable, but elsewhere, Milward’s narrative cleverness and structural experiments can get in the way of empathy for his characters.