Most Americans are not familiar with the Great Plains. They fly over them, perhaps, on their way from Boston or New York or Chicago or Atlanta to the West Coast. They remember them as long, boring drives over arrow-straight interstates. They may recall their grammar school geographies and history books, with the term “The Great American Desert” being applied to part or all of the area between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River, or they may vaguely associate the term with western movies, cattle drives, Wyatt Earp, and the Indian wars of the late nineteenth century. This is the land once covered by vast short-grass prairies, the land where millions of buffalo were slaughtered, and the land which was mostly plowed under during World War I to grow wheat and then to fill the skies with dirt during the dust bowl days of the “Dirty Thirties.” This is the land which Ian Frazier has explored in person and through research for several years and which forms the subject of this engrossing account—part social history, part folklore, part travelogue, part poetry, part jeremiad.
In 1982, Frazier drove to Kalispell, Montana, where he lived for three years, a refugee of sorts from New York City. To research this book, he drove more than 25,000 miles north and south, east and west, across and up and down the Great Plains. He read local newspapers and many books on various aspects of the Plains, ranging from historical to geological to agricultural (sixty-five pages of notes support the text), and he visited with hundreds of the men and women who live and work there, connecting their present with the history and legend of the land and its earlier inhabitants.
In chapter 1, Frazier orients the reader by providing an “overview” of the Great Plains both as one might see parts of them from an airplane and as people have previously tried to conceptualize them: the states they include, the western, southern, and northern boundaries—all somewhat indeterminate—the eastern as corresponding more or less with the 100th meridian. What makes the book so extraordinary is Frazier’s capacity to experience this vast region and his ability to render that experience in a prose that is concrete, evocative, and powerfully effective. For example, in describing the many rivers of the region he notes how the cottonwoods, growing in the valleys, “lean at odd angles, like flowers in a vase ... [their] bark as ridged as a tractor tire.” He relates images of the past that he sees in his imagination, fired by his reading and research, to his own personal experience of these prairie rivers. In the same poetic passage on the rivers of the Great Plains he imagines how it must have been when the buffalo would leave their winter coats ankle-deep in the river bottoms. Then he shares his view of a river when, “at sunset, the shadows of the cottonwoods fall across the river and flutter on the riffles. Carp sometimes rise up and suck insects off the surface with the same noise the last of the bathwater makes going down the drain. At dawn, birds pipe the light through the trees.”
This is poetry, and it is among those characteristics of the book that move it beyond the genre of mere travel accounts and into the ranks of such literary predecessors as Washington Irving’s A Tour on the Prairies (1835), Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail (1849), Mark Twain’s Roughing It (1872), and William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways (1982). Such lyrical passages are matched by Frazier’s portraits of the diverse people of the Plains: Gerard Baker, a Mandan-Hidatsa Indian working as a National Park Ranger at Fort Union; Jim Yellow Earring, a Sioux Indian who guided Frazier to the site of Sitting Bull’s cabin in South Dakota; Zona Lang of Turkey, Texas, the hometown of Bob Wills; “Moses McTavish,” a “buckskinner” at a black powder rendezvous near Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River; Ephriam Dickson, a young Crazy Horse scholar at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, where Crazy Horse was killed; Alan and Lindi Kirkbride, ranchers and antiwar activists in Wyoming; Staff Sergeant John Swift of Malmstrom Air Force Base, who guides tourists through a missile complex; Kathleen Claar, the curator of the Last Indian Raid in Kansas Museum; and many others, all of whom contribute their stories. These people, who live and work on the Great Plains, offer in the textures of their lives further testimony to the special quality of the region.
Frazier devotes a chapter to a summary of fact and legend surrounding the Native Americans, who successfully inhabited the Plains from the introduction of the horse and iron to the coming of the white man and smallpox and the railroad. He follows...
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