Dorothy Thomas’ best stories are about women doing things they aren’t supposed to. The social infraction might involve an old lady getting married for a second time, as in “Grandma Hotel Adams,” or a young mother shirking familial responsibilities, as in “The Getaway,” in which Mrs. Riggs attempts to flee to Kansas City with few qualms for the children she is leaving behind. It can be as provocative as a tourist in New York City curious about the couple having sex in the adjacent apartment or as seemingly innocuous as a schoolgirl who dares to utter the word “bull” in class. As a friend informs the protagonist of the latter story, “‘Girls and women say ‘critter’ or ‘the animal’ but they don’t say even that in front of boys.’”
Literary writing, a relatively solitary pursuit that revealed individual ambition, didn’t fit this value system. Dorothy Thomas’ relationship with her mother, Augusta, reveals the stress these social conventions exerted on the young writer. Dorothy and her mother were unusually close even when they lived far apart, exchanging letters for over two decades. In many ways, Augusta Thomas supported her daughter’s writing. She read and commented on drafts and bolstered Dorothy’s spirits during bouts of low confidence. This was in her interest, after all, as Dorothy’s publications began to form a substantial part of the family’s income.
However, Augusta’s literary suggestions often served as thinly veiled disguises for dictates concerning feminine propriety. Instead of stories about self-reliant but flawed women, Augusta would have rather her daughter written uplifting stories that affirmed the prevailing social order. Augusta voiced this ethos through many pleas for her daughter to rethink both the content and tone of her writing. Augusta’s letters to Dorothy, though often filled with praise for her daughter’s stories, regularly beg Dorothy to “Try for some more happy ones now,” or exclaim, “What unlovely characters some of them are!” When in 1933 Knopf expressed interest in a novel based on Thomas’ stories involving the “Jeeter Girls”—women who become pregnant before marriage—Thomas agonized whether to go forward with the project over her mother’s objections. “It is so hard to write under disapproval of what one is writing,” Thomas said in a letter to her friend.
Thomas was published in the nation’s best literary magazines, received praise from such luminaries as H.L. Mencken and New Yorker editor Harold Ross, was compared favorably to Willa Cather and placed several times in the annual O. Henry Prizes.
This success would be remarkable enough for a rural woman who called herself “wild and wooly” and spoke self-deprecatingly about her lack of sophistication. Add to this that Thomas came from a poor family and didn’t finish high school and the significance of her achievement stands out even more starkly.
Dorothy Thomas was one of ten children, born to a minister and his wife in 1898. She grew up first in Kansas and then in a remote area of Alberta, Canada, where the family built their own home. After Dorothy’s father’s death the family moved back to the Midwest, eventually settling in Nebraska. Getting a teaching certificate at 16 and tutoring assignments in remote rural regions allowed Thomas to support her family for the next decade.
Like the fiery Kate Steckley in Thomas’ short story, “The Steckley Girls,” who tells the narrator that “‘I wear the pants around here,’” Dorothy was often the main breadwinner and one of the key decision makers for her family. Itinerant teaching also provided inspiration for stories such as “The Steckley Girls,” which is told from the perspective of a school teacher observing the antic Steckley family.
An elementary school assignment in Lincoln enabled Thomas to make valuable connections with the Lincoln literary community. Mari Sandoz and Loren Eiseley praised her writing, and Prairie Schooner editor Lowry Wimberly published her short story, “The Beast Room” in 1927. A Gothic tale of an orphan girl’s night in a room full of taxidermied animals, the story departs from Thomas’ typical realism but forecasts her interest in depicting the claustrophobic nature of female lives.
By the 1930s Thomas had stopped teaching, devoting herself full time to writing and selling short stories to major periodicals such as Scribner’s and American Mercury. This didn’t mean that Thomas was free of monetary concerns. In 1937 Augusta wrote her daughter: “Hope your stories sell soon so you won’t have to worry about, ‘What shall I eat, or what shall I put on,’ etc.” Thomas’ life as a writer with no financial safety net wasn’t easy, but her talent made it possible for a little while.
Christine Pappas, editor of a collection of Thomas’ stories, suggests that Thomas’ work grew too sentimental in tone. She was dealt a significant blow when an editor asked to reprint one of her stories, only to anthologize it as an example of poor writing. Thomas already suffered from an autoimmune disorder, and the shock of the negative review triggered a stroke. Augusta Thomas died in 1954; in 1959 Dorothy married John Buickerood, a former machinist and construction worker, eventually settling with him in West Texas.
Dorothy Thomas had to face many of the struggles that beset her characters, but she transcended them long enough to write memorably enduring works of fiction. In her works Thomas portrayed the lives of rural women with as much perceptive acuity and humor as she herself possessed.
 Mary Cordier, Schoolwomen of the Prairies and Plains (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992) 39.
 Augusta Thomas to Dorothy Thomas, 1935. Box 10, Dorothy Thomas Archive, Jane Pope Geske Heritage Room of Nebraska Authors, Lincoln City Libraries, Lincoln, Nebraska.
 Dorothy Thomas to Marguerite Goode Lewis, 1931. Box 12, Dorothy Thomas Archive.
 Christine Pappas, ed., The Getaway and Other Stories, by Dorothy Thomas, (Lincoln: Bison Books, 2002): Introduction. All Thomas stories cited are from this edition unless otherwise noted.
 Augusta Thomas to Dorothy Thomas, 1937. Box 10, Dorothy Thomas Archive.