BOOK

Plainsongs

by Kelly McMasters ’05SOA
Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains
By Josh Garrett-Davis
Little, Brown, 336 pages, $25.99
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Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains

At the beginning of his memoir Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains, Josh Garrett-Davis ’09SOA stands in front of a cage at the Bronx Zoo, staring at eleven American bison. “They’re built like woolly brown baseball players, heavyset with nimble lower legs,” he writes. “And the agitated tails sweeping city houseflies away remind me of broken windshield wipers with rubber blades whipping pointlessly.”

Garrett-Davis identifies with these animals, which inhabit an unfamiliar space, unable to return to their home on the range, and unlikely to survive there even if they could. This is the book’s point: Garrett-Davis doesn’t wish to return to South Dakota, to the home he couldn’t wait to leave, but as he looks back on the Great Plains, he sees truths about himself that have always defined him.

It’s a story he tells in an unusual way — through a mixture of history, literary criticism, personal narrative, profile, reportage, and lyricism — in a book that is essentially a collection of essays that meander like bison, loosely grouped in a herd but still standing apart as individual animals.

Things started brightly enough for Garrett-Davis’s family. “Neither of my parents was from the Plains,” he writes. His mother grew up in California, his father in Ithaca, New York. They were civil-rights activists, with a button collection up on the living-room wall screaming out against nukes and censorship. Garrett-Davis’s parents settled in Aberdeen, South Dakota, in the late 1970s, after a small courthouse wedding for which she “wore a green cotton dress, and he wore a Methodist-red corduroy sport coat,” and opened Prairie Dog Records, using family money.

They divorced when Garrett-Davis was still small, leaving him with a fractured schedule: summers and vacations with his mother and her new girlfriend in Portland, Oregon, where she moved after coming out, and the school year with his father in Pierre, South Dakota. To assuage his heartbreak and confusion, he turned his attention to skateboarding and composing earnest lyrics stockpiled for his someday-band (“Save the Elephants”: So say you’re very sorry / For taking their i-vorry). In South Dakota, which Wallace Stegner called a “flat, empty, nearly abstract” world, hiding the secret of his mother’s homosexuality is painful and isolating, but necessary, the narrator reasons, since “the first time anybody ever found out, I lost my mom.” He lost much more than just his mother, it turns out — the divorce and surrounding circumstances made him bitter and angry toward his hometown — and the narrative is devoted to trying to get it back, even if only for a split second.

Garrett-Davis supplements this family narrative with dispatches on people and places tangentially related to him, employing a bewitching and satisfying range of technique. He mixes descriptions of prairies and pioneers with those of skateboarding and punk rock and offers long explanations of the surprising things that interested him as a teen and provided him with fellowship, such as L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the South Dakota governor, Bill Janklow, whom he reviled.

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