Plains: Not Fancy, But Endlessly Fascinating

GREAT PLAINS, by Ian Frazier. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 290 pp. $17.95. IAN Frazier treats the Great Plains as a vast canvas - 2,500 miles long, 600 wide - splashed with memories of men like Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Custer. He paints their shimmering afterglow, bringing color to an endless, grassy horizon.

But it's not just the epic human figures that capture Frazier's eye and imagination as he cruises the plains in a beat-up old van. It's natural history too - how flora from the steppes found its way to the northern prairie via Russian-German immigrants, how the gigantic dust storms of the '30s wreaked vengeance on man's encroachments.

Frazier has a passion for detail.

Describing the giant cottonwoods along the Red River in the southern plains, he notes ``bark as ridged as a tractor tire, and the buffalo used to love to rub against it.

In the shedding season, the river bottoms would often be ankle deep in buffalo fur.''

Frazier seems to have gone to the trouble - or perhaps it was the pleasure - of reading every historical and anthropological source he could lay his hands on, as an impressive notes section in the back of his book shows. This gives his first-hand observations depth.

The enthusiastic prose that emerges from this effort utterly reverses the Great Plains' popular image as ``featureless,'' a kind of geographical synonym for monotony.

Instead, we're shown a vibrant place, shaped by inexorable natural forces and sprouting such diverse human offspring as band leader Lawrence Welk and outlaws Bonnie and Clyde.

Everywhere Frazier bathes in history. ``The Great Plains have plenty of room for the past,'' he writes. ``Often, as I drove, I felt as if I were in an enormous time park.''

Aided by a hitchhiker turned Indian guide, he follows barely visible vehicle tracks to the site of Sitting Bull's cabin, then ponders the man who lived out his days in obscurity there.

He happens on a town festival in the hamlet of Nicodemus, Kan., orginally settled by liberated slaves after the Civil War, and is numbed with joy at the promise still alive there - of an America where blacks and whites can live in equality and happiness.

Frazier is fascinated by the plains' original human dwellers. He visits tepees, probes legends, visits places where the Indians once harvested buffalo by driving them off the edge of cliffs.

He puzzles over the clouded history surrounding the death of Crazy Horse, a man whose spirit seemed as stark and unconfinable as the plains themselves.

Sometimes the array of fact, anecdotes, and allusion gets a bit jumbled - as Frazier himself might have been as he rambled across the prairie.

But for those who like to travel through reading - traversing both time and space - ``Great Plains'' will be pure fun.

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