Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Volume 28, Number 1, Winter 2008, pp. 77.
Steven R. Kinsella's work is an uneasy admixture. On the one hand it is fresh, because it goes to the grassroots, sampling the writings of settlers up and down the Plains. On the other it's stale, stereotypical. The documents, stirring as individual pieces, are arranged into categories and schema as predictable as they are questionable.
Plains pioneers were, the title says, 900 miles from nowhere. They were "sturdy and determined people" who battled a "harsh, inhospitable landscape," a place of "loneliness and homesickness." The "constant roar" of the wind "drove some settlers mad" on a day-today basis, while the "troublesome Great Plains climate" punctuated their miserable lives with tornadoes and dust storms. Most of the homesteaders failed, except for the hardy few who "had the will, the fortitude, and the means to endure what the Great Plains were capable of handing out." When, in the middle of the chapter entitled "The West Is No Place for Faint Hearts," a Norwegian homesteader is so bold as to say life on the Plains is much better than in the old country, Kinsella is quick to explain that this was because conditions were so oppressive in Norway-ignoring the homesteader's own descriptions of material prosperity and a rich social life in Dakota Territory.
Kinsella has cast a broad net, retrieving primary documents from repositories up and down the Plains. This is the strength of his book, and also its weakness. Pulling in the net, he decides which documents to keep and which to throw back. The ones he keeps he arranges in conventional fashion. What might have been a reinterpretation of the pioneer experience instead becomes a reiteration of it.