Reading the Plains

Feb 26, 2018

 

On the last page of her new book, Great Plains Literature, author Linda Pratt quotes Booker T. Washington. In a speech in 1895, Washington advised his hearers, “Cast down your bucket where you are.”

I will admit that through the middle of the book I got a little disgruntled. Great Plains Literature is a volume in the Discover the Great Plains series published by University of Nebraska Press. The purpose of the series is to offer short books taking up standard topics for the general reader--Great Plains geology, Great Plains Indians, and so on. A reader who consumes the series should acquire a working knowledge of all the major topics in regional history and life.

I really like how the book starts out. Pratt speaks of the Great Plains in lyric terms as a place “sharply defined by its geography and history” and “absorbed in telling its stories.” She recognizes “the need for the open horizon” and writes, “One of the enchantments of the Great Plains is that once you have seen them, you will always know when you are there.”

Over the next few chapters she works through and reflects thoughtfully on works that most of us who think and read a lot about the Great Plains would recommend to you. The chapter on “native voices” takes up Black Elk Speaks, the stories of Zitkala-Sa, and The Way to Rainy Mountain, by N. Scott Momaday. This is great company to keep.

The white settlers arrive, and Pratt concentrates her attention on the works of Ole Rölvaag and Willa Cather. “If Rölvaag writes the epic of pioneer settlement,” she says, “Willa Cather writes its elegy.” I love how she says that, even though I find Rölvaag too, well, Norwegian for my taste.

Then comes a chapter on the depression and Dust Bowl, where I start to fidget. There is so much discussion devoted to John Steinbeck, and frankly, I don’t think The Grapes of Wrath is even about the Great Plains. Next a chapter about novels from cities, and I just can’t accept a book at St. Paul, Minnesota, as Great Plains literature.

Mari Sandoz is discussed, but for Capitol City, not for her best book, Old Jules. Louise Erdrich likewise is treated, but not her best book, Love Medicine. Whole states and provinces are absent from the survey.

Only in the final pages of the book, around the Booker T. Washington quote, do I get what Pratt is trying to do. She wants to cover the obvious bases--like Rölvaag and Cather--but beyond that, she wants to push the envelope. She wants to point out lesser-known works worthy of consideration, and in the end, lean forward to embrace a regional history and literature still in progress. “The history of the Great Plains,” she concludes, “clearly has critical chapters in its story yet to unfold.”

So cast down your bucket in the Cimarron, the Smoky, the Belle Fourche, the Cannonball. Great Plains Literature is meant to be not just a guide, but an inspiration. ~Tom Isern