Plains Folk

Proving Up


A recent book published by Little, Brown is said by many to represent the voice of a new generation on the Great Plains. Written by Josh Garrett-Davis, its title is Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains.


Garrett-Davis grew up, mostly, in Pierre, South Dakota, a skater (meaning a kid pretty much inseparable from his skateboard) and a punk rocker. As with so many children of the late twentieth century, education and love took him away from the plains, and he returns only to visit. As with so many prairie children of any time, he still has an attraction to the place of his youth. He lives in New York, and visits the bison confined in the Bronx Zoo.


What Garrett-Davis is trying to accomplish is a “new personal mythology” of life on the plains. He depicts himself as an outsider living in Pierre with his father, who won custody after his mother left for a same-sex relationship in Portland. He goes in search of his ancestors on the prairies, at the same time rereading Willa Cather and other classics of the plains. He seeks to “prove up” by blending his family story with the regional saga—mainly by bending the regional story to fit the experiences of his ancestors.


It’s all rather personal, which is how it goes with memoirs these days. At one point Garrett-Davis discusses at length the story of the fossil Tyrannosaurus rex Sue, which was the subject of a legal battle over who would profit from the find and where it should be exhibited. This is a good story, but the author insists on mixing it up with the story of the custody battle over, well, him. So at one point Garrett-Davis is likening himself to Willa Cather, at another to a dinosaur. These analogies are just a little too elastic for my taste. But then, maybe I am the dinosaur.


Garrett-Davis does have ancestry on the plains going back to the homesteading era in Nebraska. The problem with making his forebears the stuff of a new regional story is that they are rather unimpressive folk. They move around a fair bit, don’t accomplish much, do a fair bit of protesting of this or that, and never seem to be happy.


There is a confusing section three-quarters of the way through the book where the author is trying to be Walt Whitman while telling the story of Pastor Fred Phelps and his unsavory band of protestors from Topeka. After that he embraces all the most chic of environmentalist fads for the prairies, including provocative “rewilding” proposals to introduce elephants and cheetahs. It is at this point we begin to see that for Garrett-Davis, the plains are not, never will be, a place to live and love, but are, rather, something to play with.


Some do say that Josh Garrett-Davis is the voice a new generation on the plains. I think, rather, he is the voice of Josh Garrett-Davis.


How do I know? Because I hear the voices of scores of young prairie men and women every day. They are not disaffected or alienated. They are, if anything, a little too complacent and confident about the future of this place.


It would be interesting to hear a representative young voice provide a new take on Willa Cather, William Jennings Bryan, and all the old standards of the plains. I still await that voice.


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