Amherst Magazine

Sometimes the Bison, Sometimes the Settler

Reviewed by Nicholas Mancusi ’10

[Memoir] It goes without saying that the preamble to any book review should make it clear what exactly the book that’s being reviewed “is,” but part of the pleasure of Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains (Little, Brown), the first book by Josh Garrett-Davis, is that it’s exceedingly hard to pin down. The book is presented primarily as a memoir of the author’s upbringing on, and long exodus from, the Great Plains of South Dakota, but in fact, it is less the story of one man and more the history (or confession) that the Plains themselves would write if they could.

Ghost Dances combines elements of anecdote, history and biology, told with a touch of the mystery of the Ghost Dance itself, a ritual that could be described, depending on your mood, as either shamanism or faith. Garrett-Davis has internalized the wistfulness of the plainsman, the communion with the horizon, the wanderlust of spirit that comes along with never quite feeling at home. Racking up miles as an “unaccompanied minor” while ping-ponging between his father’s house in Pierre, S.D., and his mother’s in Portland, Ore., he developed a sensitivity for the forces at work between the coast and the hinterlands.

His parents’ marriage broke up in large part because of his mother’s realization that she was a lesbian, and Garrett-Davis goes through several of his formative years weighed down by this secret, worried that if it came to light, his tenuous social status as a well-behaved punk rocker would be in jeopardy. After many pages of his book and years of his life spent worrying about being discovered, the modern liberal (lowercase “l”) reader may come close to exclaiming, “Dude, it’s not that big of a deal,” but that Garrett-Davis would be so preoccupied is a reminder of the tyranny of some small towns and the vicious, Hobbesian world we inhabit as children.

Garrett-Davis  has internalized the wistfulness of the plainsman.

When selecting a metaphor for himself, Garrett-Davis has plenty to choose from. Sometimes he’s the bison, as when he visits the Bronx Zoo and regards them in their enclosure:

“In a way I feel we’re kin, that I’ve become like the zoo buffalo peering back at the range through the fence boards, as I read about plains history and go back to explore places I never appreciated as a kid … .”

And sometimes he is the settler, as when discussing demographic flux in New York:

“The process of gentrification had a feeling of inevitability, like Manifest Destiny, and the subway stops on the L appeared like meridians of longitude going west on the frontier.”

Garrett-Davis populates the Plains both with recognizable figures, such as William Jennings Bryan and Willa Cather (the subject of one of the book’s best sections), and with lesser locals, such as the hard-line, allegedly bazooka-toting governor Bill Janklow, who is nearly Jacksonian in his stance toward the Native population and who serves as foil and villain for the liberal progressivism of the writer’s parents. It’s the interplay between what each of these types of characters represent that spurs Garrett-Davis’ fascination (love would seem too strong a word) for his native land:

“This is why I have driven myself nearsighted with all these Plains books and farsighted crisscrossing the open plains … . I wanted a new horoscope, one that would reconcile somehow these opposite urges, opposites that now seem native to the place itself: coming and going, placid and furious, conservative and progressive, fitting in and fighting back, timidity and temerity.”

Although microcosms for America are perhaps suggested too frequently, Garrett-Davis has drawn a compelling one there in South Dakota, one full of both shame and triumph. He is a writer with a set of talents as diverse as his background, and this book should mark the arrival of an exciting new voice, uniquely hybridized between competing American worlds.

Photo by Joshua Simpson