Review: “Great Plains” by Ian Frazier
I have been nurturing an interest in the prairie/savanna/plains for a while now. It’s not something I have always been interested in. I’m from Michigan, and my interest has always been in northern forests and waters. But something about the prairie has been seeping into my consciousness, so I’ve been reading quite a bit about the plains––Grass: In Search of Human Habitat by Joe Truett, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen, A Geography of Blood by Candace Savage, Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains by Josh Garrett-Davis; there were bits about the North Dakota plains in Douglas Brinkley’s biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Wilderness Warrior; and, before any of these, Paul Gruchow’s Journal of a Prairie Year.
So it wasn’t terribly surprising that my wife and I decided to go to South Dakota for the fourth of July. Mostly it was to visit Mt. Rushmore, which she remembers as the most awe-inspiring of parks she visited as a child, but it was also to simply see the country. The flat prairie and the traditional Native American pipestone quarries around Pipestone National Monument in southwestern Minnesota, the rolling hills around the Missouri River, the Black Hills, and the badlands. It was a quick trip, but it was fascinating and fun and just an inkling of all I wanted to know and see.
Along the way, in the visitor center in Badlands National Park, I picked up Ian Frazier’s Great Plains, a book that was recommended to me by a friend a couple of years ago. Published in 1989, the book is Frazier’s ode to the open country that sprawls through 10 states from the Canadian border south to Texas. It is both a history and a contemporary view (albeit more than 20 years old now), and it is so well-written that even a slow reader like me can be caught up and move through it like wildfire on the prairie.
Frazier is a columnist for New Yorker magazine, and he’s a funny guy. In the 1980s, he traveled the Great Plains alone in his van, sleeping in truck stops and on road shoulders most of the way; meeting people, visiting historical places long since overgrown, and relating it all through the pages of this book. He relates the region’s Native American history with fascinating and thorough detail. He talks about Crazy Horse and General Custer with equal aplomb, and he meets a man claiming to be the grandson of Crazy Horse on the street in New York City. He tells about Bonnie and Clyde’s appearance in plains history, and he has a story about Lawrence Welk, the most famous export of Strasburg, North Dakota, being whacked on the head with a brick after playing at a dance. He describes ghost towns and MX missile silos. He provides a history of the Dust Bowl and a little-known episode called the “black exodus” from the Reconstructed south to the freedom of the north. Through it all, he paints the most beautiful picture of dust and grass and blue sky and baking heat and unbroken horizons that perhaps anyone before or since has been able to convey.
Frazier is a scholar and a humanist, but most of all he is an observer and a keen story teller. If a person wanted an overview of the history of this immense part of the nation’s mid-section, this is the place to start.
Next up, Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes (edited by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr.) and The Lakotas and the Black Hills: A Struggle for Sacred Ground by Jeffrey Ostler. Then I’ll probably go for another of Ian Frazier’s books, On the Rez, a book that sounds something like David Treuer’s Rez Life, but focuses on the Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. More on all of those later.