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Goodlands: A Meditation and History on the Great Plains by Frances W. Kaye (review)

From: Western American Literature
Volume 47, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 407-408 | 10.1353/wal.2013.0027

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Writing about the so-called Great American Desert in The Year of Decision: 1846 (1943), Bernard DeVoto takes up just what was known about the region by various notables then and asserts that “Thoreau felt this empty land as a question asked while he slept” (50). Equally, Tommy Douglas, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation–New Democratic Party (CCF-NDP) premier of Saskatchewan who first brought single-payer universal medicine to his province and so to Canada in 1946, a figure who was a few years ago pronounced “the Greatest Canadian” in a CBC contest, is remembered for exhorting supporters, “Courage my friends, ’tis never too late to build a better world” (qtd. in Jack Layton, “Canadian Idealism,” Literary Review of Canada, October 2011: 8). Thoreau is not mentioned in Goodlands, although the still persistent notion of the Great Plains as “empty land”—what Frances Kaye calls “the deficiency paradigm”—is its driving idea (9). Douglas, for his part, is one of the heroes here: in a chapter called “Mitigating but Not Rethinking,” Kaye compares his work building a better world to that of Nebraska Senator George W. Norris; their legacy, she writes, “is one of honesty, peace, goodwill, and successful mitigation of the grassland ecosystem to fit Amer-European norms of land use and participation in the market system” (241).

Published as the latest volume in a series of books edited by Alvin Finkel and Sarah Carter called “The West Unbound: Social and Cultural Studies,” Goodlands is a canny metahistory of the Great Plains region, one that Kaye knows as well as anyone—as she demonstrates again and again here through deft prose, synthetic understanding, and clear argument. Her study, she writes, “is a meditation about what happened when a mass of people hit a geographical and cultural region that they felt entitled to reclaim from deficiency. It is also about the intellectual resistance from groups of people, already weakened by disease and invasion, who nonetheless attempted to deal with vastly changed circumstances in both economic and sacred contexts; people who, unlike the settlers, began from the premise of sufficiency, not deficiency” (5). Doing just this, Kaye synthesizes knowledge of the Great Plains with an almost stunning interdisciplinarity—the disciplines she draws from really are too many to list here—and, equally important to my mind, an unwaivering binational Canada-US focus.

Among this excellent book’s most compelling arguments are its analyses of comparative historiographies—most especially iconic figures like Custer, Sitting Bull, and Riel, but also in its considerations of exploration, the fur trade, legal history (each country’s homesteading act comes under special critique), settlement patterns and assumptions, and the ongoing resistance of indigenous peoples to Euroamerican conquest. Contrasting the historical circumstances in each country, Kaye writes that “Canada needed its West to bring about Confederation; the eastern United States claimed its West as Manifest Destiny. Canada’s West is separated from its eastern population centres by a thousand miles of rugged Canadian Shield, while the United States deployed a continuous frontier of Amer-European settlement” (128). Even better, she writes that “Riel and Custer both served as symbol and synecdoche for their respective federal governments, giving them permission to abrogate treaties and to exert ruthless pressure on Indigenous peoples through outright warfare, starvation, and massive, systematic human rights violations designed to stamp out not only effective Native resistance to the wholesale Euro-North American settlement of the Great Plains but any cultural continuity whatsoever for Indigenous people” (65).

As such analysis suggests, Goodlands’ impetus is Douglas’s: to build a better world. Disdaining arguments predicated on deficiency paradigms such as Deborah and Frank Popper’s Buffalo Commons (which just turned up, yet again, in a gloomy, nay-saying piece in the July 2012 Harper’s), Kaye asserts through her meditation that the “Great Plains does not have to be transformed to be useful or acceptable. Nor does the Great Plains of today have to be transformed back to Buffalo Commons to be viable, any more than Indigenous people have to recapture a lost and nostalgic past” (323). While she does delve into the bases of the region’s economy—most especially farming but mining and gas...

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