Review of Great Plains by Ian Frazier
For most non-Americans the scale and diversity of the American landscape is near impossible to comprehend and perhaps non more so than the Mid-West and the stunning Great Plains with its rich history and eye-watering size.
Some 2,500 miles long and 600 miles across at its widest point, great swathes of prairie and grassland lay home to cattle faming, crops and latter day wind farms. Sitting west of the great Mississippi River and to the east of the Rocky Mountains in the US and Canada this was home to the earliest American Indians and the subsequent tribes whose names of Sioux, Comanche, Cheyenne and Apache would see their incredible history reduced to the part of the common enemy in every chest-thumping Western movie ever made.
In Ian Frazier’s remarkable book, the American Indian is at the forefront of his account of the Great Plains story. Having moved to Montana from New York in 1982, Frazier parked his intention of writing a novel and set about exploring his new landscape over several summers whilst spending the winter months researching the historical notes he had made along the way. The result is a memorable mix of the disconcerting to the quirky, to the tragic and the shameful. Like the fields themselves, this is a fine patchwork of historical facts and personal memories which make both book and place so fascinating.
The tragedy of the American Indian is well written, that they were so far behind the white settlers in education, wealth and enterprise makes their demise all the more sobering: ‘When a band of Indians plundered a Missouri River keel boat carrying $25,000 worth of gold dust in buckskin sacks, they poured the gold dust into the sand and kept the buckskin sacks’ Frazier is clearly struck by the plight of the Indian tribes, the book is littered with references both historical and personal to give a human perspective to a race which deserved far better than it ever got. His description of finding the place where Sitting Bull’s cabin once stood on the banks of the Great River immediately transports the reader to its place, remote, unassuming, surrounded by long grass and a grove of bur oaks.
As fast as the new, rich European landowners arrived to stake their claim on the lands they would be gone. The winter of 1886 would prove a great leveller. As temperatures plummeted by forty degrees in two hours, storms moved cattle herds hundreds of miles, sixty per cent of Montana’s cattle perished and ‘when the buffalo were slaughtered, they lay so thick on the ground that you could walk for miles on the bodies’ This savage reminder of nature’s power saw the end of most of the huge, multi-million dollar investment backed ranches and a return to the smaller, independent farms as the dawn of the railroad would open up new possibilities and developments.
For someone who has never, sadly, seen the Great Plains, I have long wanted to witness its scale and perhaps more so, its skies. The effortless blending of sky and field is like no other, vastness, for me, offers pause to consider our own sense of place, time and being. For many though the Plains are dull and Frazier worries for its future:
‘I fear for the Great Plains because many think they are boring. Money and power in this country concentrate elsewhere…The Great Plains do not ingratiate. They seldom photograph well-or rather, they are seldom photographed. Images of the Plains are not a popular feature on postcards or scenic calendars. And, in truth, parts of the Plains are a little monotonous…The beauty of the Plains is not just in themselves but in the sky, in what you think when you look at them, and in what they are not’
In Frazier’s wonderful book we are reminded of the Plains rich history to its present day where its landscape seems purpose built for the housing of the country’s deadliest missiles. It’s an informative, enjoyable account of one man’s time and travels in America’s heartland, to capture all it has to offer would surely take a lifetime.
Great Plains by Ian Frazier published by Granta Books
Further reading: In America by Geert Mak
Categories: The Reading Room