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Reviews in American History 30.4 (2002) 585-589
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Do Good Fences Make Good Neighbors?
Malcolm J. Rohrbough
Beth LaDow. The Medicine Line. Life and Death on a North American Borderland. New York: Routledge Press, 2001. xviii + 272 pages. Illustration, notes, bibliography, and index. $25.00. (cloth); $16.95 (paper).
This is a book with large-scale ambitions to fit a large-scale canvas. The "medicine line"—the one-hundred mile border between Montana and Saskatchewan—becomes a vehicle to speak about the land and its changing shape under human habitations, about varieties of people—Indian, Métis, several kinds of Canadians and Americans, about changes on both sides of the line over the half century from the first surrender of Sitting Bull in 1881 to the depths of the Great Depression in the middle of the 1930s. Within this fifty years over this hundred miles, LaDow has examined many of the basic questions that engage western historians.
She begins her charactization of this land with reference to William Faulkner and his Mississippi setting. Like Yoknapatawha County, she writes, the medicine line was "a place primed for fatality," in which "the hopes and limitations, complements and contradictions of people adapting to each other in a remote and difficult geography" (p. xviii). It is a vivid opening that sets the stage for the many stories of people, institutions, and landscape that will follow.
LaDow has many goals. She intends her account as a monument of sorts, to the forgotten people who were born, lived, worked, and died on both sides of the line. Among individuals whose historical significance she wishes to recapture is Sitting Bull and his surrender. Like others who write about significant but largely forgotten moments, she wishes for a great artist to give us a large-scale portrait of the events. As she writes, "But such a monument does not exist. This volume may serve as that portrait, tracing what happened along the medicine line before and after Sitting Bull crossed it—how the line itself came into being and then quickly faded from memory, in a story that turned out to be less about borders and nations than about the land itself. Sitting Bull's odyssey is an opportunity for allegory, for hope and the death of hope, the great theme of the west" (p. xviii). [End Page 585]
At the center of her story is "the medicine line." It ran along the 49th parallel, some one hundred miles in length, separating the political entities of the United States and Canada. As she shows, however, in many respects the commonalities on both sides of the line were greater than the differences. Her story begins with Sitting Bull's trek in July 1881 when he crossed the line headed south to surrender his rifle and band at Fort Buford; it closes in 1930, when the homesteaders who took the land a generation earlier with such high hopes began to abandon their claims and with them, their expectations about this place and their future.
Part of her story focuses on the similarities and differences north and south of the line and an amazing variety of peoples. She identifies and analyzes a series of contrasts and comparisons that make up her story: Americans and Canadians; violence juxtaposed against law and community; Indian peoples who are found on both sides of the lines and who cross the line in pursuit of their own interests; and for various groups, Indian peoples, and Métis, the line means both sanctuary and pursuit.
LaDow emphasizes the land itself and gives us fine descriptions of a landscape that is at the same time, frightening, monotonous, and endowed with a strange beauty. "One of the toughest arid prairie environments in the world," it isa challenge to any group that intends to live there (p. 2). She notes the different percepts of the land by the two large groups who sought to come to terms with it. The Indian peoples saw it in a utilitarian sense; the Euro-American settlers liked it better when they were filled with...