Friday, June 7, 2013

The Book: Ian Frazier, Great Plains (Farrar/Straus/Giroux, 1989)

Why: The story of a vast area shaped by the dreams of those who have inhabited it.

A few days ago, one of my partners sent me the menu for a client dinner we are attending at a resort somewhere in the Appalachian wilderness area of a Mid-Atlantic state. The food descriptions looked great, but what immediately captured my attention was the name in which our reservations had been made: “Great Plains Moody.” Had the person attending to the details simply misheard the constituent elements of our firm’s name? Or was this some East Coast wit’s ironic commentary on some regionally shared character flaw, say the dark Scandinavian underside of Minnesota Nice?

Thinking about that was putting me in a dark mood, but luckily the reference to the Great Plains reminded me of a wonderful book I had read many years ago by that title. The author, Ian Frazier, is one of my favorites, specializing in travelogues in which he encounters all manner of quirky people and situations. And I vaguely recall some sort of Kevin Bacon-like connection with him as well, something along the lines of his being married to the sister of the wife of the brother of a friend. Putting aside my friendship with a fellow blogger here who is just about to hit the big time with a children’s musical, that’s just about as close as I’ve ever gotten to knowing a literary figure personally.

Anyway, what makes this book great is the lure of the Great Plains themselves. Frazier graphically describes this area as being something akin to a vast blank canvas waiting to be painted by generations of adventurers pursuing their personal ambitions. This is not to say the area was at any time empty, and Frazier is particularly sympathetic to those who inhabited the plains for generations before Europeans arrived on this continent. No, instead, think of this as the story of a place that is somehow mystically attractive, a place where for ages people have gone to pursue their dreams.

One particular story that will resonate, on a deep level, with any entrepreneur is the story of Korczak Ziolkowski, the sculptor whose dream of creating a memorial to the renowned Crazy Horse out of a mountain in South Dakota is even now slowly coming to fruition. Ziolkowski, like many a great entrepreneur, was a man of vision who could look at something that to others looks unremarkable and see something wonderful.

Frazier’s description of the monument-in-process is especially evocative. The site, he says, “…is a ruin, only in reverse. Instead of looking at it and imagining what it used to be, people stand at the observation deck and say, ‘Boy, that’s really going to be great someday.’”  That sounds a lot like what we hear at Gray Plant Mooty on a daily basis from our entrepreneurial clients.


  1. Sounds like a beautiful book. Willa Cather brought the Great Plains to life in her novels, some of my favorites. It's interesting that you note the "moody" quality of the midwestern peoples. Regionally, we are a serious, hard-working people, but we also dream big, as you note.
    I'll have to add Frazier's book to my summer reading list. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for your note--it's wonderful to know someone out there to whom I'm not related is actually reading my posts!

    I have a weakness for books about the Midwest and the Great Plains, particularly those that explore how our surroundings affect those of us who live here (and vice versa). If you'd like to try something a little more Minnesota-specific, I also suggest Susan Allen Toth's Leaning Into the Wind: A Memoir of Midwest Weather (U. of Minn. Press, 2006).

    Let me know what you think of Frazier's book.