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  • Little Business on the Prairie: Entrepreneurship, Prosperity, and Challenge in South Dakota by Robert E. Wright
  • Thomas D. Isern
Little Business on the Prairie: Entrepreneurship, Prosperity, and Challenge in South Dakota. By Robert E. Wright. Sioux Falls: Center for Western Studies, Augustana College, 2015. viii + 340 pp. Illustrations, notes, sources consulted, index. $16.95 paper.

In Little Business on the Prairie, Robert E. Wright demonstrates two things: his love of South Dakota and his belief in market capitalism. These are things that come naturally to the holder of the Nef Family Chair in Political Economy at Augustana College.

Wright concerns himself with “how successive generations of peoples residing in that area of the Northern Plains now designated South Dakota have managed to thrive in a sometimes brutal climate and rich but uncompromising ecosystem seemingly far removed from the major avenues of world and even national commerce” (16). Such clichés of disadvantage are foils for heroic entrepreneurship, the intended focus of his work. The thesis to be induced from the text is that entrepreneurs have overcome disadvantage because of the business-friendly climate in South Dakota—mostly a matter of economic freedom, punctuated now and then by the actions of a pro-business activist state.

There is interest and pleasure in touring the economic history of the Mount Rushmore State with Wright. He is given to chatty digressions that are sometimes risqué. His breezy style includes some unintentionally humorous expressions, such as “blizzards straight from the bowels of hell” (12), and evidently precludes him from writing the simple geographic name “Missouri River”; it always has to be “the Mighty Mo.”

Early in the story Wright introduces a strong typology of entrepreneurs: innovative, replicative, and exploitative. It would have been good to attend to this typology throughout, for the sake of structure and argument, but Wright instead lets the thread unravel. For example, on pages 192–205 is an important discussion of banking, but somehow the logic of entrepreneurism is submerged, and the discussion becomes a mere matter of naming people.

The fundamental disappointment in the book is that it never gets to the heart of entrepreneurism—how it ignites, how it emerges, how it evolves. The book does mention many entrepreneurs, and so at least the reader has examples to consider.

Substantive discussion of the dynamics of entrepreneurism would have been better for the book than the author’s reductionist pronouncements in historical minefields where [End Page 334] he has done no research. However many times it is repeated, an insistence that all Indian Country needs to solve its problems is a dose of entrepreneurism offers little.

Better editing, too, would have cleaned up the author’s untutored use of quotations and combed out some of the factual errors. (His quotation of Custer about the badlands on page 12 is really a misquoting of Sully, who was talking about the North Dakota badlands.)

Wright prompts consideration of the proper role of the state in political economy, a question that is churning the politics of states the length of the Great Plains today. His book is a part of that discussion, and not so much a contribution to history.

Thomas D. Isern
Department of History, Philosophy, and Religious Studies North Dakota State University


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