- Encyclopedia of the Great Plains
It must have taken some audacity to undertake an Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, if for no other reason than that few can agree on just what and where the Great Plains are. In his introduction David Wishart provides a map showing the region's boundaries according to fifty publications. In the bewildering snarl of overlaid outlines, some cut off eastern Nebraska, others [End Page 526] reach halfway through Wisconsin. Some exclude most of Oklahoma; others admit much of Louisiana. Defining the Plains climatically is equally dicey, since its climate's main trait is variability and unpredictability, and cultures and politics are as mixed as terrain and weather. Outsiders' impressions to the contrary, the Great Plains are better characterized by diversity than by sameness, something well understood by Wishart and well celebrated in this splendid reference work.
Geographically, the volume keeps the Plains east of the Rocky Mountains and upper Rio Grande, north of a line even with Texas's Big Bend. The eastern boundary includes Texas north of that line and west of Fort Worth, half of Oklahoma and all of Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. To the north they stretch to a line from Winnipeg to Edmonton. Corralling and organizing even a reasonable range of topics in that enormous expanse is a challenge, and the approach taken here is interesting and, for the most part, efficient. Entries are grouped under twenty-seven categories. Some are ethnic (African, Asian, Hispanic, Native and European Americans), some cultural (Architecture, Art, Music, Religion), others more general (Cities and Towns, Agriculture, Law, Transportation, Water). Each of these opens with an overview, then goes on to alphabetical entries of events, landmarks, persons and other particulars. The "Media" section, for instance, gives us an historical sketch and a few regional themes of Plains journalism and mass media. There follow entries on prominent newspapers (Emporia Gazette), Plains-born newsmen from William Allen White to Tom Brokaw, and a range of topics from the telegraph to Native American radio and military post publications.
Shrewdly, the staff adapted their broad categories to reflect the Plains and what persons do and do not generally associate with them. More than twenty-five pages on "Images and Icons" treat persons and characteristics widely identified with the region—George Custer, Wyatt Earp, Bill Cody, and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, flatness, Friday night football, missile silos, and Okies. This naturally involves puncturing some misconceptions (only about a fifth of the Plains can be reasonably called "flat") while elaborating on impressions that are more or less accurate. Working somewhat against expectations are thirty pages on "Protest and Dissent," which goes far beyond the expected entries related to Populism to consider the Cowboy Strike of 1883, the Women of All Red Nations (WARN) and the depression-era protest in Canada, the On-To-Ottawa trek. Running throughout the sections, and a cause of frequent eyebrow-raising, are entries on Plains natives few would associate with the region: Malcolm X, Dennis Hopper, Langston Hughes, Harold Lloyd, and L. Ron Hubbard, among many others. It is difficult to avoid wondering whether growing up in Nebraska or Montana encourages at least some to push whatever envelope they find themselves in.
Readers of this journal probably will wonder most about the section on "War." It covers the expected nineteenth-century U.S. engagements and campaigns, but ranges also chronologically and geographically in both directions, bringing in the disastrous Villasur expedition and the Spanish-Indian slave trade as well as the Strategic Air Command, Canada's Wartime Prices and [End Page 527] Trade Board, and the Seven Oaks massacre on the Red River of the North.
Encyclopedia of the Great Plains is an essential reference work on the American experience but also a charming browsing ground. Turning a page, a reader will soon come to anticipate some fully unexpected nugget, several paragraphs on "Tornado Stories," "Mad Pioneer Women," and "North Dakota Anti-Garb Law," forbidding nuns from wearing their habits...