Proving Up by Karen Russell | Summary, Themes & Synopsis

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Proving Up Summary by Karen Russell
AuthorKaren Russell
Publication DateJanuary 2018
GenreFiction, Short Story
SettingLate 1800s
LocationGreat Plains region
Main CharactersMiles Zegner, Ma Zegner, The Zegner Boys, The Government Man
ThemesThe American Dream, Perseverance, Survival, Family, Isolation
Literary DevicesSymbolism, Foreshadowing, Imagery
Awards and HonorsThe story was included in The Best American Short Stories 2018 anthology and was a finalist for the National Magazine Award for Fiction.


In her short fiction “Proving Up,” Karen Russell examines the hard realities of the late 1800s Homestead Act’s settlement of the Nebraska grassland. The Zegner family is followed throughout the narrative as they struggle to live in their remote location for the previous five years. The family’s hope for the future depends on the Inspector’s decision about whether they have fulfilled the requirements to acquire full ownership of their land.

Summary- Proving Up

The American Dream, solitude and desperation are all topics Russell addresses in his narrative. The Zegner family is alone on their farm and is surrounded by miles of grassland. They are anxious to prove up their property so they may ensure their future. The family must always work to achieve the American Dream, which is symbolized by the deed to their farm, yet it is always just out of reach.

The narrative is filled with symbolism as well. The hinges that Miles has to deliver to their neighbor stand for the interconnection of the neighborhood and the reality that the Zegner family’s goal won’t come true without the neighbor’s signature. The dead buffalo Miles comes across on his voyage stands in for the prairie‘s demise, the abolition of Native American culture, and the difficult conditions the Zegner family must endure.

The narrative comes to a terrible and surprising conclusion that leaves the reader in amazement. Without giving anything away, it exposes the shady side of the American Dream and the extent individuals will go to in order to realize it.

About The Author-Karen Russell

AuthorKaren Russell
BornJuly 10, 1981
GenreFiction, Magical Realism
Notable WorksSwamplandia!, Orange World
EducationColumbia University


What is the plot of Proving Up?

Proving Up follows the struggle of the Zegner family as they strive to convince a government inspector that their Nebraska property is legitimate. The novel is recounted from the viewpoint of Miles, the family’s 11-year-old son, who observes the hardships and tragedies that befall his family and their neighbors as they attempt to meet the criteria of the government.

What are the major themes of Proving Up?

Poverty, loneliness, survival, and the American Dream are some of the themes covered in “Proving Up”. Identity, authenticity and the value of narrative are some topics that are touched on.

What is the writing style of Proving Up?

The harsh majesty of the Nebraska frontier is captured in the beautiful and evocative prose of Proving Up. The language is constrained and minimalist, with an emphasis on sensory description as well as the characters’ interior thoughts and feelings.

Is Proving Up a horror story?

Although while Proving Up has horror and supernatural aspects, it is better categorized as literary fiction. Instead of focusing on conventional horror clichés, the novel examines the psychological and emotional impacts of poverty, loneliness and desperation.

What is the critical reception of “Proving Up”?

Reviews of “Proving Up” have complimented it for its deep character development, spooky and atmospheric narrative and study of both historical and contemporary issues.

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