Sunday, September 02, 2012

Ghost Dances: A review

Hello, all. It's been fairly busy around here as the new semester approached and has now arrived and, moreover, combined with a dearth of much of anything "interesting" to pass along in this space. However, some engaging books, films and music have arrived here at the Meridian manse, and I will be posting about them in the next few days and weeks.

A word about the review below: About a month ago, a PR person at Little, Brown emailed me to ask if I would like to read and post a review of Ghost Dances on my blog. I said Sure, and not too long afterward an advance copy arrived in the mail. I'm not entirely sure how or why Little, Brown picked us for this honor, but ours is not to question why.

What follows is a tinkered-with and expanded-upon version of my review on Amazon.

Image found here.

Josh Garrett-Davis, Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains

I want to begin by saying that I really wanted to like this book. Why it never really caught on with me is something I've given a lot of thought to. All memoirs by their very nature are self-centered, so that's not the problem with this book. But most memoirs are written by people who, at least according to the texts they write, have arrived at a point in their lives from which they can survey their pasts and be able to discern a path to their respective presents. The center, whatever we may think of its particulars, is fixed. Josh Garrett-Davis' book, however, is very upfront about the fact that he so far isn't able to do this in his life and that Ghost Dances is his gathering up of autobiography and various historical and literary narratives from the Great Plains that, in their common themes of migrating to and from that place, lead him to realize that, as he puts it, "I belong to that country precisely because I don't belong there: The currents in and out, the streams and storms and contamination, define the ocean of grass" (9). Well, fine. But--for me, at least--the end result is that, with all this literal and figurative coming and going, Garrett-Davis--and, thus, his book--are not so much self-centered as de-centered. His picking and choosing of Plains narratives and his constant claiming to identify bits of his biography with those narratives, no matter how tenuous the connections, finally don't cohere for the reader, because they never seem to cohere for him. They speak to him; he wants them, in some sense, to speak for him; but finally the reader is asked to accept that all these narratives add up to a whole because Garrett-Davis says so, and not because the reader can discern that they do independent of Garrett-Davis' claim. And there are long stretches here, as when he recounts reunions with distant relatives, which he clearly finds moving and important for him and which I respect for those reasons but which I otherwise find tedious.

I confess that a large part of my frustration with this book arises from my having read this spring another, far superior book about the Great Plains area, William Least-Heat Moon's PrairyErth, a book whose method Garrett-Davis' book seems to draw on at times (both, for example, share the idea of creating a Commonplace Book for their respective subjects). While reading Ghost Dances, I often asked myself why PrairyErth is so clearly a better book. I think the answer is that Least-Heat Moon's book is so firmly rooted in its geographical location of Chase County, Kansas--which also happens to be near the geographical center of the 48 contiguous states. It thus becomes a kind of commonplace book about all of us in our commonality as Americans and not of a county of around 600 people an hour from Wichita and two hours from Kansas City. Meanwhile, though Least-Heat Moon is clearly present in his book, he is not its subject. People speak in their own voices; they tell the stories they want to tell. He is their scribe--he's in search of a sense of this place and not of himself. Garrett-Davis' book, though, never acquires a sense of center beyond that of the person writing it who is himself searching for his own center.

Ghost Dances works best for me in those moments when Garrett-Davis stays out of the way of the stories he tells. For example, he relates well the material about the titular Ghost Dances, a subversive movement among Indians in the final decades of the 19th century (of which the massacre at Wounded Knee is the best-known of those events). Also, he seems genuinely moved by the material on the buffalo that he includes in his book. In the end, though, this book doesn't read like a completed book but like a collection of notes for a book. Which, again, I understand is part of its point. But just because it succeeds on its own terms does not mean that it must perforce succeed for the reader.