Monday, August 3, 2009

In Review: Great Plains

Click here to order from Amazon.Com
~ “Away to the Great Plains of America, to that immense Western short-grass prairie now mostly plowed under! Away to the still-empty land beyond newsstands and malls and velvet restaurant ropes!”

So begins Great Plains, the 1989 examination of America’s heartland. That vast inner expanse of plains and prairies that range from Canada in the north down to the Texas panhandle in the south. Stretching some 2500 miles in length, and about 600 miles across at their widest point, the Great Plains encompass parts of the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, and parts of the American states of Montana, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

Part history, part travelogue, part extended road trip, Great Plains has the grandeur and sweep of the frontier itself crammed into its concise 214 pages of main text – which is no mean feat, let me tell you.

By the time he wrote this book, Ian Frazier had driven some 25,000 miles on the plains – from Montana to Texas and back again. Twice. As well as many shorter distances. His meanderings took him from an abandoned anti-ballistic-missile system command centre in remote Montana, to the exact site of Bonny and Clyde’s automobile plunge into the Red River; from the location of Sitting Bull’s camp on the Grand River, to the site of Custer’s last stand on the Little Big Horn; from Fort Union in North Dakota, to Fort Stockton in Texas.

It is no accident that rivers feature so much in this book – even as peripheral ‘characters’. The Great Plains are at times so dry and barren that in the early years of exploration parts of them were known as the Great American Desert. It made sense for the early settlers – just like Native Americans – to build their forts and villages, their towns and cities along the banks of any river large enough to provide a source of life-giving water and food to the populace.

No accident too, that the history of conflict between Native American Indians and settlers crops up throughout Great Plains. Frazier manages to examine the slaughter of millions of bison, the betrayal and death of Crazy Horse, and meet and mix with numerous descendents of the great warriors of the past as he traverses this immense space.

All the great characters are here; ranchers and homesteaders, mountain men and fur trappers, outlaws and gangsters, cowboys and Indians, railroad barons, oil men, coal miners, and more. You get to meet the great and humble, the rich and poor, emigrant Germans and former Southern Black slaves, and the men and women who struggled for generations (and who still struggle today), to make some sort of living from the Great Plains.

Ian Frazier is clearly a man in love with the Great Plains, its history, and its immense cast of fabulous characters – both modern and ancient. As an introduction to this vast area of land and open space Great Plains is entertaining and informative, and filled with insight, obscure historical facts and references, and ultimately, immensely readable.

Finally, the book is well indexed, includes 16 pages of black and white photographs, and has almost 70 pages of extensive notes to supplement the main text. Highly recommended.

“This is a brilliant, funny, and altogether perfect book, soaked in research and then aired out on the open plains to evaporate the excess, leaving this modern masterpiece. It makes me want to get in a truck and drive straight out to North Dakota and look at the prairie.” —Garrison Keillor

Click here to purchase Great Plains via Amazon.Com...
Great Plains by Ian Frazier (First published: 1989, Penguin Books)
Now available in Picador (May 4, 2001) . ISBN-10: 0312278500

Also by Ian Frazier is the book On the Rez, billed by Amazon.Com as “…a history of the Oglala nation that spotlights our paleface population in some of its most shameful, backstabbing moments, as well as a quick tour through Indian America. Much of On the Rez revolves around Le War Lance, whom Frazier first met in Great Plains.”

Publisher: Picador; 1st edition (May 4, 2001). ISBN-10: 0312278594

NOTE: scroll through the Reading List box on the left to purchase On The Rez directly from Amazon.Com. You can also click on the In Review tag below to view other book reviews on this site.

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