The image of America's West in fiction, fact, and photos

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The Mythic West in Twentieth-Century America, by Robert G. Athearn. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas. $25. The World Almanac of the American West, edited by John S. Bowman. New York: World Almanac. $29.95. Prairie Images of Ground and Sky, by Terry Evans. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas. $19.95. ``The Mythic West in Twentieth-Century America,'' by Robert G. Athearn is the most recent book by a respected historian of the West about the myth and influence of the cowboy upon the region and popular culture. Begun in 1922, this informal look at the West begins as a reminiscence by the author as a five-year-old boy recalling that his grandfather's ``cure'' for bedwetting was a sound whipping. It was already a West of long-handled frying pans, endless unfenced land, and resources unaffected by the Depression. Robert Athearn contrasts the reality of the West with the romanticism of men like Frederic Remington and Owen Wister, and the old-timers who sat in the bunkhouses and general stores and recalled a land once dark with buffalo. This is a realistic look at a world of hard work, cows, and farmers - a stark and unrewarding existence that has become the province of mythmakers and dude ranchers. It's a readable document by a man who loved the West and was not blind to the demands it made on the men and women who settled there.

Covering the late 15th century to the present, Bowman's The World Almanac of the American West, is complete with dates and information from the early settlers to Merle Haggard. With illustrations, paintings, etchings, photographs, and documents about education, trail drives, the black experience, and agriculture, it is an entertaining source book about American history in general and Western history in particular.

It was not until photographer Terry Evans was doing some survey work for friends that she began to look at the grasses, flowers, and the prairie. The result is Prairie Images of Ground and Sky. She had always photographed people before, and her visual concepts of photography were altered. ``I never intended to photograph the prairie,'' she says in the essay ``Earth Patterns.'' She began to learn the poetic and strange names of flowers and grasses, names like catclaw sensitive briar; the differences between a nearby wheat field and the prairie; the self-renewal of the prairie and the limitations of the wheat field.

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The text is about her observations and the photographs are her visual introduction to this world taken between the springs of 1978 and 1985. Bison grazing on a game reserve, prairie land in winter, storm clouds lifting over dark grasses, the sky over Kansas, and white steer skulls, ``Prairie Images'' is a photographer's book about the relationship between sky, prairie, and agriculture, plant and human life. The photos, taken on 80 acres of prairie in Kansas and the Weaver prairie near Lincoln, Neb., are for the thoughtful person concerned with the issues of nature and ecology rather than a colorful collection of pictures of the Midwest.

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