Witnessing to History On the Great Plains

By , Mark Clayton is a staff editor at the Monitor.

ON an unusually warm, springlike day in January 1888, a sudden blizzard with sub-zero temperatures slammed across the Great Plains states dumping a wall of snow on sod-hut farmers near Falls City, S.D. It was a tragedy for many. But for those who survived it was just another in nature's succession of tests of human durability. Stubborn. Unyielding. Ultimately learning to bend so as not to break before drought, grasshoppers, and storm, the plains farmers of the late 19th century and early 20th are the heroes of Charles Bailey's novel "The Land Was Ours."

But to take the measure of the men and women who broke the sod of Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, and tell the complex story of their impact on the character of this country, Bailey, a journalist by profession, has created a fictional journalist.

Budding newspaperman Dan Woods, whose early memories are of farm life, became a town boy in Falls City when his family, like so many others, was forced to admit that although "In God we trusted, in Nebraska we busted."

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Through Dan's eyes and ears, and through the reports he files, emerges the grand tapestry of human struggle against weather, railroads, and grain companies, mixed with the political frustrations and passions of the period. The narrative follows Dan's rise to the editorship of the Falls City newspaper, peering through his journalistic lens at America between 1870 and 1940.

What the book tells us we rarely get from a history text - the meaning conveyed by the author's understanding of the grace, political inspiration, and power that this region's struggles and suffering ultimately infused into politics and the nation's character.

Ideas, not just wheat, were propagated on the plains. Farmers' debts, low grain prices, high transportation charges, lack of paved roads and electricity, and fraud by grain elevator operators gave rise to the outrage, whose politics spread nationally, though farmers' clout was declining.

Bailey devotes most of the book to exploring farmers' grievances and the way in which farm politics influenced American political thinking. Political movements with roots on the farm, from the Greenbackers to the Grangers, the Alliance, the Populists, and the Progressives, each brought ideas that culminated in the 1930s New Deal.

Dan also gives us a reporter's-eye portrait of a lifetime of political personalities and presidents - six of them. William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and FDR. Dan's political sources include Mark Hanna, the political consultant; William Jennings Bryan, the three-time presidential nominee of the Democratic Party; Sen. Sam Rayburn; and other minor and major historical figures.

One of the book's best moments comes when William Jennings Bryan speaks at the Chicago Democratic convention in July 1896 on the hottest issue of the day - the proposal to do away with the gold standard - a plan farmers hoped would create cheap money, thus allowing easier repayment of debts. As he takes notes, Dan tells us what he sees. "Bryan let the applause roll on. Slim and straight, he was a study in black and white: black hair, pale face; black alpaca coat and vest, white bow tie; a single black s t

ud in a white shirt. After five minutes, the crowd quieted enough for him to begin. He had the audience completely in his grasp."

Bailey then uses a technique in which we get a dual point of view. We hear Bryan speak, but at the same time get Dan's observations. The effect brings the famous speech to life.

That a newspaperman should become the central character of a story about farmers and their lives reveals the author's passion for journalism. Dan's life shows the hardships the craft requires, and how to imbibe its ideals.

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