Agee, Jonis 1943-

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Agee, Jonis 1943-


Born May 31, 1943, in Omaha, NE; daughter of Eugene F. and Lauranel Agee; married Paul McDonough (an author). Education: University of Iowa, B.A., 1966; State University of New York at Binghamton, M.A., 1969, Ph.D., 1976.


Home—Omaha, NE. Office—215 Andrews Hall, Lincoln, NE 68588-0333.


College of St. Catherine, St. Paul, MN, professor of English and creative writing and director of the creative writing program, 1975-95; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, teacher of creative writing and English, beginning 1995; University of Nebraska, Lincoln, currently Adele Hall Professor of English. Macalester College, St. Paul, MN, adjunct teacher, 1980-88; Literary Post Program for Senior Citizen Writers, teacher and editor, 1986-89. Midwestern Writer's Festival and Small Press Book Fair, chair, 1976-80; Walker Arts Center, literary consultant to performing arts program, in charge of Writers Reading Series, 1978-84; New Rivers Press, member of the board of directors; consultant to Rachel River Film Project, Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities Creative Writing Program, and Toothpaste Press. Has given readings and been awarded residencies at various universities, colleges, arts centers, and bookstores; served as judge and panelist for numerous prizes and arts councils.


Faculty Excellence Award in teaching, College of St. Catherine, 1977, 1986; Minnesota State Arts Board award in fiction, 1977; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in fiction, 1978; Loft-McKnight Award in fiction, 1987; Loft-McKnight Award of Distinction in fiction, 1991; Nebraska Book Award, 2000, for The Weight of Dreams; Gold Award, ForeWord magazine, 2004, for Acts of Love on Indigo Road: New and Selected Stories.



Sweet Eyes, Crown (New York, NY), 1991.

Strange Angels, Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1993.

Salvation Sister, 1994.

South of Resurrection, Viking (New York, NY), 1997.

The Weight of Dreams, Viking (New York, NY), 1999.

The River Wife, Random House (New York, NY), 2007.


Pretend We've Never Met, Peregrine Smith (Salt Lake City, UT), 1989.

Bend This Heart, Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1989.

A .38 Special and a Broken Heart, Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1995.

Taking the Wall, Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1999.

Acts of Love on Indigo Road: New and Selected Stories, Coffee House Press (Minneapolis, MN), 2003.


Houses (poems), Truck (Carrboro, NC), 1976.

Mercury (chapbook), Toothpaste (West Branch, IA), 1981.

Two Poems (chapbook), Pentagram (St. Paul, MN), 1982.

(Editor) Border Crossings, New Rivers (Moorhead, MN), 1984.

(Editor) Stiller's Pond, New Rivers (Moorhead, MN), 1988, new expanded edition, 1991.

Work represented in several anthologies, including A Change in the Weather, Rhiannon Press; and The Unmade Bed, edited by Laura Chester, HarperCollins, 1992. Contributor of fiction and poetry to numerous periodicals, including Truck, Sing Heavenly Muse, Glitch, and Story Quarterly. Agee's work has been translated into Norwegian.


Critics of Jonis Agee's writings often remark on how it pays attention to geography—both the physical geography of the upper Midwest, which often serves as the setting for her fiction, and the moral geography of characters whose lives are demarcated by their vices and their struggle to survive the social environment of their rural communities. Agee, who studied classical poetry—particularly epic narratives—in college, began her career as a poet but later turned to prose fiction, the genre in which she has produced her most notable work.

Pretend We've Never Met, Agee's first story collection, is set in Divinity, Iowa, a fictional town that owes much of its character to the small Midwestern communities where the author was raised. Agee uses individual stories to focus on various town residents and their responses to a range of personal crises. The story "Aronson's Orchard" details the reactions of a father whose son has become a rapist and murderer; the protagonist of "Mercury" stands by while his beloved automobile is gradually dismantled by unknown vandals; and "What the Fall Brings" dramatizes the actions of Billy Bond, a teenager who goes mad after his state-champion pig is roasted at a town barbecue. The majority of the stories are brief—some only one or two pages in length—and this condensed form required Agee to employ several experimental techniques. Minimizing physical descriptions and plot details, the stories turn on the author's use of distinctive narrative voices and ambiguity. Perry Glasser, writing in North American Review, noted these traits, as well as the dangers inherent in such an experimental approach. "This kind of lyric prose cannot be sustained for long," Glasser stated. The critic, however, judged the author's handling of the numerous short fictions to be successful, giving the book a coherence often lacking in story collections. "Jonis Agee understands her material," Glasser summarized. "Her stories take risks and a rewarding number succeed."

Bend This Heart, published the same year as Pretend We've Never Met, abandons the use of a single setting and instead utilizes a thematic thread to give the collection unity. The twenty-three stories in the book all consider the subject of love and relationships, though the relationships—and the characters involved in them—are as diverse as they are numerous. Aging homosexual lovers meet a tragic end in "Private Lives," while the narrator of "Time Only Adds to the Blame" contemplates the obligations between family members following the death of her sister. Traditional love story subjects, such as the reunited couple of "In the Blood," are balanced by more unusual relationships, such as that of a former nun and an elderly farmer who await the arrival of extraterrestrials. Once again, Agee concentrates on very short prose pieces, though she also attempts several lengthier explorations.

In a review of Bend This Heart, American Book Review contributor Robert Fox compared Pretend We've Never Met to Bend This Heart and found the latter collection lacking: "Ironic understatement, employed effectively in the earlier pieces [from Pretend We've Never Met], becomes the wrong end of a telescope, miniaturizing and thereby trivializing the characters' lives."

Agee returned to Divinity as the setting for her 1991 novel, Sweet Eyes. In addition to numerous characters who were first introduced in Pretend We've Never Met, Sweet Eyes focuses on its narrator, Honey Parrish, who struggles to cope with a mass of troubling circumstances. She communicates with a dead lover, Clinton, who committed suicide fifteen years before, a trauma from which Honey has yet to recover. She is scarred, both physically and emotionally, by relationships with her family. Like most in Divinity, Honey drinks, and drunken fights and drunken sex proliferate. When Honey begins an affair with Jasper Johnson, the only black man in Divinity, a group of town bigots become violent, nearly beating Johnson to death. Finally, there is a mystery involving a violent incident from fifteen years before, and it is Honey's internal resolution of this mystery that pushes the novel toward its conclusion. Agee drew on her knowledge of classic poetry in writing Sweet Eyes, including an opening epigraph that is taken from The Inferno by the medieval Italian poet Dante. Like Dante's descent into hell, Honey Parrish undertakes her own heroic journey.

While many reviews praised the portrayal of characters and landscape in Sweet Eyes, some critics noted difficulties in Agee's transition to the longer format of the novel. Chicago Tribune Books reviewer Andy Solomon cited the novel's occasional narrative weaknesses, but stressed the author's ability to combine "present and past into a rich, meaty tale that captures American small-town life…. She clearly shows herself to be a significant new novelist."

In 1999 readers were presented with two works by Agee, a collection of stories, Taking the Wall, and the novel The Weight of Dreams. The pieces in Taking the Wall all portray characters connected to the world of car racing and demolition who are wishing for a different life. The Weight of Dreams looks at the life of Ty Bonte, a rancher who flees the Nebraska town of his dysfunctional childhood only to return decades later to face his history.

Agee's next collection of short stories, Acts of Love on Indigo Road: New and Selected Stories, was published in 2003. This collection of twenty-five new stories and material from four earlier collections "offers little glimpses into the desperate lives of people living on the edge," as Debbie Bogenschutz put it in her review for Library Journal. One of the stories, "The Waiting," was called "particularly haunting and surreal" by New YorkTimes Book Review critic Maggie Galehouse. The story deals with the effects a plane crash has on a community of elderly folks whose children have forgotten them. In another story in the collection, "The Land You Claim," one individual tries to save the graves in his town before a flood hits. Bogenschutz felt that the author "writes convincingly, often in the first person" throughout Acts of Love on Indigo Road. A Publishers Weekly reviewer maintained that her "flair for stunning conceits and turn-on-a-dime plotting dominates throughout," adding that Agee's handle on "the gritty underbelly of blue-collar American life belies an equally impressive talent for poetic, elegiac writing."

Agee's fifth novel, 2007's The River Wife, was conceived from the true story of a young girl who was left pinned under a fallen rafter by her family after the catastrophic 1811 New Madrid earthquake, which changed the course of the Mississippi River and many people's lives. In an interview with BookPage contributor Alden Mudge, Agee remarked: "I couldn't get rid of the idea of that girl. Sometimes before I'd go to sleep, I'd figure out ways to rescue her. That story stayed with me for a couple of years, and my agent and my editor kept asking why I didn't tell it. But I resisted that stretch into historical material because I thought I didn't know enough. Finally I decided I had to try, and once I did, it just began working."

The River Wife is "set on the shores of the Mississippi and ranges from the early 1800s into the years of the Great Depression. Filled with high Southern gothic flavor, the narrative is epic in scope, covering a series of generations and bursting with entwined layers of plot tension, sex, violence and intrigue," wrote Bernadette Murphy in the Los Angeles Times. The book opens during the Depression with Hedie Rails, the pregnant teenage bride of wealthy Clement Ducharme, coming to live at his estate in Missouri, Jacques' Landing, after being thrown out of her family's home. One night she happens upon the journal of Annie Lark, who more than a century earlier was rescued from near death by fur-trapper Jacques Ducharme after her family left her pinned under a rafter following the New Madrid earthquake. Annie's journal tells her story and the stories of other "river wives" connected to the Ducharme family.

Several reviewers noted that among all the river wives, Annie's character was the strongest. "Of the four river wives, Annie Lark has the most compelling story, probably because she's the most fully realized character," observed Murphy. "Agee's novel is fascinating, although somewhat inconsistent. Annie Lark, whom we see grow from a self-centered girl to a budding naturalist, is by far the most engaging and fully formed character. After her voice is silenced, the story loses some of its heart," remarked USA Today critic Susan Kelly. "Lush historical detail, a plot brimming with danger, love and betrayal, and a magnificent cast … will keep readers entranced," asserted a Publishers Weekly reviewer.



American Book Review, September-October, 1990, Robert Fox, review of Bend This Heart, p. 24.

Booklist, April 15, 2007, Sarah Johnson, review of The River Wife, p. 29.

BookPage, August, 2007, Alden Mudge, "Jonis Agee Weaves the Pioneer Past into a New Novel."

Books, June 2, 2007, Kristin Kloberdanz, review of The River Wife, p. 7; July 28, 2007, "Darkness along the Mississippi: Jonis Agee's New Novel Tells the Story of Ill-fated River Wives over More than a Century," p. 10.

Christian Science Monitor, July 24, 2007, Yvonne Zipp, review of The River Wife.

Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2007, review of The River Wife.

Library Journal, March 15, 2003, Debbie Bogenschutz, review of Acts of Love on Indigo Road: New and Selected Stories, p. 119.

Los Angeles Times, July 17, 2007, Bernadette Murphy, review of The River Wife.

Midwest Living, November 1, 2003, "Hoping for Harvest in a Barren Land," p. 76.

New York Times Book Review, July 20, 2003, Maggie Galehouse, review of Acts of Love on Indigo Road, p. 16.

North American Review, September, 1989, Perry Glasser, review of Pretend We've Never Met, pp. 69-70.

Philadelphia Inquirer, October 31, 2007, Martha Woodall, review of The River Wife.

Publishers Weekly, March 31, 2003, review of Acts of Love on Indigo Road, p. 42; March 12, 2007, review of The River Wife, p. 32; April 30, 2007, "Writing to Save a Life: Jonis Agee's Fifth Novel, The River Wife, Is Her First Trip Back in Time; PW Talks with Jonis Agee," p. 136.

San Diego Union Tribune, July 15, 2007, review of The River Wife.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), February 17, 1991, Andy Solomon, review of Sweet Eyes, p. 6.

USA Today, August 14, 2007, Susan Kelly, review of The River Wife, p. 4.

Virginia Quarterly Review, spring, 2000, review of The Weight of Dreams.

Washington Post Book World, July 22, 2007, "Southern Gothic: A Ghost Abandoned in the 19th Century Finds Her Voice in the Modern Age," p. 7.


Denver Post Online, (July 21 2007), Robin Vidimos, review of The River Wife.

Jonis Agee Home Page, (December 30, 2007).

PopMatters, (November 14, 2007), Martha Woodall, review of The River Wife.