Ian Frazier’s Great Plains is almost twenty years old now, but I’m just getting around to it. I’m sorry it took so long, but glad it waited for me. As a work, it’s an odd-shaped duck–part history, part anecdote, part philosophy, part naturalism. The Plains, obviously, unify it. That and Frazier’s style. There’s a narrative lyricism that is simultaneously scholarly and poetic and which fuses past and present:
The town was called Mondak, because it straddled the Montana-North Dakota state line, and the half of the town in Montana (which was wet) had nine saloons. Train crews from the Great Northern Railroad often stopped in Mondak to drink, and sometimes men would pass out on the tracks. It is said that the Great Northern ran over more people in Mondak than at any other place along the line. Except for some foundations, a small structure covered in pressed tin, and a couple of rows of concrete cells which used to be part of its jail, Mondak has disappeared. As I watch the purple clouds building to the north, the cottonwood leaves showing their pale undersides to the wind, the whitecaps rising on the river, the veils of dust blowing from a butte, I wonder if maybe this scenery has somehow been permanently altered by the thousands of drunken eyes that have looked at it before.
Frazier wanders around the Plains in his van for about 25, 000 miles, in the tradition of such journeys/writings as Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, Randall Kenan’s Walking on Water, and Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail. His reporting on what he discovers covers ranching, missile defense, the dust bowl, Catherine the Great, Thomas Jefferson, tumbleweeds, Crazy Horse, the origin of air mattresses, and the different behaviors of drivers at interstate rest stops. And he does it all with great heart, soul, objectivity, and subjectivity. I don’t care much for the Plains, except that I find certain parts of their history interesting. But I sure as hell loved this book.