Nate Dunlevy was on vacation with his family when he paused to check his email. He saw a message from Nancy Conor and quickly opened it. The good news had finally come: His book Invincible, Indiana was selected to be one of 12 books (and one poem) that would mark the bicentennial of the Hoosier state.
"It was really a wonderful moment and incredibly meaningful to me," says Dunlevy.
The selection of books — featuring fiction, nonfiction, essays and poetry — are part of The Next Indiana Bookshelf, a series of titles chosen based on their connection with Indiana. Each one either uses Indiana as the setting or was written by a Hoosier author. NUVO columnist David Hoppe's book Food For Thought: An Indiana Harvest was featured on the list.
On Dec. 8 The Indiana Center for the Book and Indiana Humanities awarded 55 libraries, schools and organizations free copies of the set in the hopes of providing them the framework to study these local literary bylines.
"We don't actually know all of the things that they may do with them," says Suzanne Walker, director of Center for the Book. "But some ideas have been things like book clubs, maybe it can be part of a reading program. A lot of people are thinking about doing the Bicentennial as their summer reading them for 2016."
Each of the locations will also receive a poster with the "Indiana Chant" (by April Pulley Sayre, a writer from South Bend, Ind., who was asked to write a 19-stanza piece about the state).
Somewhere around 80 applications came pouring in from public libraries, schools and cultural organizations.
"It was a competitive process for the 55 who were awarded The Shelf," says Walker.
The books were selected to be a mark in the Bicentennial by the Indiana Center for the Book and Indiana Humanities around six months ago. The idea was to highlight where the state has been and the cultural direction we might take. All the authors will also write an essay about the "Next Indiana" that will publish on the Indiana Humanities website beginning in January.
Walker explains how they spent a lot of time trying to make sure the list was as well rounded and diverse as possible in the hopes of reflecting where they want Indiana to be in decades to come.
"To me, I really feel like Indiana is in such an interesting spot right now," says Walker. "We have been known nationally for some really controversial things over the past couple of years. So I think it's a great time for us to celebrate being a state; celebrate the things that we have in common, and also the things that we don't have in common. I think there is a lot of diversity on the Bookshelf ... Reading books is such a wonderful way for people that experience different things in their life to get together and talk about something that they can all relate to or just discuss. In the next Indiana, I hope that Hoosiers are able to really open up and talk more, and have great discussions about things."
Choosing the books was a controversial task on its own.
"We weren't necessarily trying to choose a big slew of classics," says Walker. "We wanted our big names to be represented. We knew a Kurt Vonnegut would be there. We knew that we wanted a John Green on the shelf ... We wanted to jazz it up and pick some classics that maybe people had forgotten about. That's how Raintree County ended up on The Shelf. We thought this was a good opportunity to showcase some classics that maybe people had forgotten about, to showcase some diversity in our state that often gets overlooked when you are thinking about classic literature."
Deciding to not include Booth Tarkington was one of the classics that they felt didn't quite fit with the impetus of the collection. Walker hopes that people see the list and have a gut reaction and even challenge their curation.
"Offering a list for people kind of gives them a chance to react to what's on that list," says Walker. "I feel like when we react to things that are presented to us, it can really help us learn about ourselves."
For authors like Dunlevy — and his novel deconstructing the myth of high school basketball and small town life in Indiana — being included on the list will be a mile marker in his career.
"I remember reading John Green's work [years ago] and just despairing," laughs Dunlevy. "Because in so many ways our lives were similar. We are from the same part of town, we have certain similarities in our backgrounds, we even know a lot of the same people. And he is so much better than me ... That's my reaction to those writers; so to be included with them ... to say it's humbling doesn't even begin to cover it."
Collect your own 'The Next Indiana' list:
• Earth Works: Selected Essays by Scott Russell Sanders — $25. Scott Russell Sanders is the national winner of the 2010 Indiana Authors Award, and in this collection of 30 essays he takes on everything from growing up in the Midwest to his opposition to war. He also discusses environmental issues and the ideology of consumerism.
• The Essential Etheridge Knight by Etheridge Knight — $11. Etheridge Knight began writing poetry during his time as an inmate at the Indiana State Prison. He won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award nominations.
• Food For Thought: An Indiana Harvest by David Hoppe, photos by Kristin Hess — $24.95. This coffee table style book was commissioned by Indiana Humanities to commemorate an award-winning program called Food for Thought. It includes first-person narratives and vidid photography.
• The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf by Mohja Kahf — $13. This follows the story of a Syrian immigrant named Khadra Shamy, as she grows up in Indianapolis in the 1970s. It follows her struggle as society denies her the right to be both "Muslim" and "American." This novel couldn't be more timely.
• Invincible, Indiana by Nate Dunlevy — $15. The story of Dale Cooper, a high school basketball coach, is used to deconstruct the myth of high school sports and small town life in Indiana. "I wanted to unpack that for what it was, which some of it was true and beautiful and other parts were just myth," says Dunlevy.
• Kurt Vonnegut: Letters by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., edited by Dan Wakefield — $12.22. Dan Wakefield pulled together a series of letters from his dear friend and colleague Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. The series shows 60 years of recollections about growing up "a native Middle-Westerner."
• Paper Towns by John Green — $5.72. One of Indiana's (and most teenagers') favorite authors explores the lines of adolescence and suburbia with the characters Quentin and Margo. The movie version has several Indiana musical ties, including being scored by IU grad Son Lux.
• Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, Jr. — $18. This is probably one of the most unique styles of writing you will cross at least for the better portion of 2016. Told through a single day in 1892, John Shawnessy recalls his youthful love in Indiana, the Civil War and even the politics of the Gilded Age.
• Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix — $8. A young girl grows up thinking1840. Guess again! It's actually 1996, and they are living in a village that serves as a tourist experience.
• Sailing the Inland Sea: On Writing, Literature, and Land by Susan Neville — $19.95. Neville is a literary giant here in Indy. This collection of essays include interviews with Kurt Vonnegut, Scott Sanders, Marguerite Young and more.
• Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War by Helen Thorpe — $12. This renowned narrative follows three Indiana National Guardswomen during 12 years of military service. The New York Times Book Review noted, "What Thorpe accomplishes in Soldier Girls is something far greater than describing the experience of women in the military."
• What This River Keeps by Greg Schwipps — $13.20. Winner of the 2010 Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Emerging Author Award, What This River Keeps trails an elderly couple who is afraid they might lose their farm to eminent domain.