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Great Plains (2001)

Great Plains (2001)

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3.96 of 5 Votes: 1
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0312278500 (ISBN13: 9780312278502)

About book Great Plains (2001)

“I fear for the Great Plains because many think they are boring.”ttttttp. 91I'll probably like this book more than you. I salivated over the possibilities of Great Plains after reading the author's Travels in Siberia. I went in with high hopes but acknowledge now that twenty-one years lapsed between this book and the Russian one, and Great Plains, as great as it is, reads, and was, the work of a younger and more self-conscious man. Frazier tries to sound cool and detached and drifter-y, sleeping in his car and picking up Indian hitchhikers. He skips many of the cliche-visits (e.g. Mt. Rushmore, Wall Drugs) and focuses more on the wide expanses as a construct, coloring in the details with well-researched historical analysis. His notes, outlining and explaining his sources, are sixty pages long and almost as fun to read as the text they support. Frazier stumbles, however, when he tries to attach great big meaning to environmental concerns and isolated missle silos. He's much better focusing on small observations (the sound an air conditioning unit makes in said silos) and letting the people and places tell their own stories. I liked this book better than Travels in Siberia but the latter is a better book.I am defensive of the Great Plains and, according to Frazier, I don't even live there. The central time zones doesn't get the lead in commercials for television shows. And the mountain time zone? Do most Americans even know that the mountain time zone exists? People get Nebraska and Kansas confused and only remember the Dakotas because they're two of them. Two of my least favorite words in the English language, when combined, are “flyover country”. I'm not going to ask you to like the Great Plains, and I'm sure as hell not describing the stretch as some sort of peaceful, anti-urban paradise. But I like knowing the Great Plains are there. In a quiet, slumbering way, I see the Great Plains as giving the finger to both coasts. And I love that. I love feeling that, in the middle of Nebraska, we'd all feel a curious mix of boredom and freakout. I'm reminded of that scene in Brown Bunny when the main character is driving. And driving. And driving.Yes, the Great Plains are boring. But I've had interesting experiences there that probably wouldn't happen anywhere else. Why do I appreciate Frazier's Great Plains? Three stories:1) About a decade back my friend Sean and I drive to the South Dakotan Badlands. We walked the castle trail, about a ten mile lollipop loop from just short of the gift shop to one of the roads and back. Numbered poles lead the way; you look for the next pole across the lunar landscape to stay on trail. Sean decides to get high. I tell him if he gets busted I'm leaving his ass behind then walk a couple miles ahead of him. Later we argue in the car on the way to Rapid City for Mexican food. I remember the fight involving birds and Sean claiming the media was “the man”. Still later we wait out an apocalyptic storm in a strip mall Borders.2) Five years before that my wife and I drive across Kansas on one of the last legs of a six week road trip. We stop at a campground in Topeka, where I watch baseball's all star game on a black and white television.3) Two Badlands trips later, less than two years ago, my car dies on the side of I-90 about fifteen miles west of Sioux Falls. By “dies”, I should clarify, I don't mean “stops”. I mean “pieces of the engine strewn across the shoulder” dies. I walk to the next exit. You don't notice how much roadkill clutters the side of 90 until you walk it. A couple hours later a polite teenager from the auto repair shop where I junked the car waits to make sure the rental works out before he heads home.“The beauty of the plains is not just in themselves but in the sky, in what you think when you look at them, and what they are not.”p. 92 There are a million books about New York or whatever, and I'm ok with that. But if you want to catch what driving across the middle of nowhere for eighteen hours might feel like, but in good way, read Frazier's Great Plains.

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.

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I've never before visited any part of the Great Plains. Nor had I ever before read a book by Ian Frazier, though his writing is frequently featured in the New Yorker, so I was familiar with him. While I wouldn't say this book convinced me in any way to want to visit the Great Plains- to the contrary, Frazier portrays this region as one who's heyday was long in the past, despite many joy inducing elements- but it very much made me want to immediately pick up another of Frazier's books.Part travelogue, part history lesson, and part sociological/anthropological observation, Frazier discusses the past and present and speculates on the future of this great, empty stretch of American tundra. I had hoped the book would be more of a present day account and at first found the lengthy historical tangents to be a bit boring, but once I was a few chapters into the book the mix started to maintain my interest. Its a short, quirky book, definitely worth a read.

I picked this up at the library after Melissa had mentioned it. I like the other things I've read by Ian Frazier, in large part because I'm generally a sucker for ruminations on American identity issues.This one is focused on the Great Plains, obviously. Weirdly, I didn't know when it was published, but by the first 1/3 through, I was thinking to myself that it sounds, in my head, very 80s. It was 89, as it happens. I'm still not clear on what made it so obviously 80s to me.Frazier is a New Yorker who as an adult transplanted himself to the middle of America and so has that observant and somewhat obsessive approach that people can get toward things they love but to which they are not native. He covers a lot of historical periods, one of which is the Indian wars (although I liked these chapters, he was messing around with a weird stylistic thing which I think was supposed to be reminiscent of traditional native story-telling but didn't work very well), and in addition to being a New Yorker who is obsessed with the Great Plains, he's also a white guy obsessed by Indians (further covered in other books), but he's very self-aware about it and always puts it out there as something to be assessed. One of the topics he covers is the Cult of Crazy Horse, and in college I was full-blown into this, let me tell you. And it is a funky thing, I mean, why Crazy Horse when there were other Indians who were crazier, (come on, you know it's so tempting to follow up with "or horsier") or more successful, or more peaceful, or more not peaceful, or who had longer, more significant careers and more influential leadership roles. I especially liked this passage where Frazier articulates why Crazy Horse is so iconic:Personally, I love Crazy Horse because even the most basic outline of his life shows how great he was; because he remained himself from the moment of this birth to the moment he died; because he knew exactly where he wanted to live and never left; because he may have surrendered, but he was never defeated in battle; because, although he was killed, even the Army admitted he was never captured; because he was so free that he didn't know what a jail looked like; because at the most desperate moment of his life he only cut Little Big Man on the hand; because, unlike many people all over the world, when he met white men he was not diminished by the encounter; because his dislike of the oncoming civilization was prophetic; because the idea of becoming a farmer apparently never crossed his mind; because he didn't end up in the Dry Tortugas; because he never met the President; because he never rode on a train, slept in a boardinghouse, ate at a table; because he never wore a medal or a top hat or any other thing that white men gave him; because he made sure that his wife was safe before going where he expected to die; because although Indian agents, among themselves, sometimes referred to Red Cloud as "Red" and Spotted Tail as "Spot," they never used a diminutive for him; because, deprived to freedom, power, occupation, culture, trapped in a situation where bravery was invisible, he was still brave; because he fought in self-defense, and took no one with him when he died; because, like the rings of Saturn, the carbon atom, and the underwater reef, he belonged to a category of phenomena which our technology had not then advanced far enough to photograph; because no photograph or painting or even sketch of him exists; because he is not the Indian on the nickel, the tobacco pouch, or the apple crate.Grade: B, ishRecommended: It's not the best by this author, but if you like him, or if you have a particular interest in the Great Plains (although really, who doesn't?) this is a pleasant read.
—Elizabeth K.

I decided to give my brain a vacation with this one - Ian Frazier is one of my favorite authors and this love letter to the American Plains was a beautiful break. It reads like a travelogue interspersed with the history of whatever part of the Plains Frazier is traveling through (Custer’s Last Stand, Crazy Horse, Minutemen nuclear mission storage, African American settlements).My favorite part of the book was Frazier’s response to Crazy Horse. After visiting the state parks that were once frontier forts used as trading hub, army posts, and centers of early Indian reservations, Frazier describes Crazy Horse’s betrayal and death at one of them. This is a long quote but bear with me, I’m just gonna copy out the first part of a very moving paragraph:"Personally, I love Crazy Horse because even the most basic outline of his life shows how great he was; because he remained himself from the moment of his birth to the moment he died; because he knew exactly where he wanted to live, and never left; because he may have surrendered, but he was never defeated in battle; because, although he was killed, even the Army admitted he was never captured; because he was so free that he didn’t know what a jail looked like; because at the most desperate moment of his life he only cut Little Big Man on the hand; because, unlike many people all over the world, when he met white men he was not diminished by the encounter…."Anyway it continues on, and I think Frazier does a great job of not romanticizing any part of the Great Plains and its history. I’m excited to read On the Rez, which is exclusively about Indian reservations. I think I finished Travels in Siberia in late September/early October, and knew I was hooked on Frazier’s amazing depictions of humanity. Also of nature. Just of being alive. Reading Ian Frazier makes me feel more alive for doing so.Wow I’m waxing a little poetic/hyperbolic here, but I just have a lot of feelings! I worry that I’ll never be able to travel and experience the world the way I’d like to, so reading isn’t just to gain knowledge of faraway places, but to substitute as experience for me. Ian Frazier will take you there.Great Plains: very good

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