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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© Jim Brandenburg / Minden Pictures / Corbis

Some of these diversions don’t work, as when he draws hyperbolic parallels between an ownership fight over Sue the tyrannosaurus fossil, which was discovered in South Dakota and then shuttled between a number of different institutions, and his own custody battle. He is at his best when using his personal experience to illuminate some larger idea, as in the chapter that simultaneously skewers the Westboro Baptist Church (of “God Hates Fags” fame) and elevates Dakota Taylor, a gay gunslinger from a pulp paperback series. His playful spin on the writer Willa Cather is both endearing and brilliant; using her 1890 high-school graduation speech as evidence, Garrett-Davis determines that at sixteen she is “infinitely more badass” than the plains punks.

A PhD candidate in American history at Princeton, Garrett- Davis often pulls from primary sources for his pieces, including his own adolescent lyrics and local newspaper musings, letters from his mother to her marriage counselor, and timelines of the nineteenth-century buffalo slaughter. So, his prose is not academic. People “tumbleweed into South Dakota” and “splash into LA,” and hate-preacher Fred Phelps “is Walt Whitman’s evil twin, generating an overflowing word count, a commonplace book of hate-filled, exclusionary, overwrought, antique, hyperbolic, unedited provocation.” Ruth Harris, the writer’s eighty-five-year-old second cousin twice removed, is “an unshelled almond: a fibrous, sun-spotted exterior with a substantial and almost sweet heart.” His parents come across as jagged and imperfect on the page, yet his affection still rings loudest.

Early in the book, Garrett-Davis remembers a pre-divorce moment, sitting in the car with his mother: “‘The birds will use it for their nests,’ Mom would say as she let her hair out of the window of our red Datsun ... I imagined lucky robin chicks growing with a golden braid of her hair coiled around them, that rich, dark blond that mine would be if I grew it out.” The image of a shining strand of gold weaving through a nest of drab dead leaves and twigs seems to mirror Garrett-Davis’s strategy of sparking through the dry plains like a star skidding across the earth, lighting up the landscape for us to see as he blazes his path away.

Kelly McMasters '05SOA teaches in the undergraduate creative writing department and the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia. She is the author of Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town.

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