Given that the Great Plains long functioned as a stomping ground for the Oglala Sioux, it was inevitable that Ian Frazier would cross paths with them when he wrote his 1989 chronicle of that sublime flatland. But the encounter between the self-confessed "chintzy middle-class white guy" and his Native American counterparts went so swimmingly that Crazy Horse assumed a starring role in the book. Now Frazier continues his cross-cultural romance in On the Rez. This account of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota is as touching, funny, and maniacally digressive as anything he's written. What's more, he manages to avoid most of the politically correct potholes along the way, producing a vivid, ambivalent (i.e., honest) portrait of a community where the very "landscape is dense with stories."
Much of On the Rez revolves around Le War Lance, whom Frazier first met in Great Plains. This yarn-spinning, beer-swilling figure serves the author as a kind of Native American Virgil, introducing him to the hard facts of reservation life. In fact, their friendship, with its accents of deep affection and dependency, anchors the entire narrative and elicits some typically top-drawer prose:
Le's eyes can be merry and flat as a smile button, or deep and glittering with malice or slyness or something he knows and I never will. He is fifty-seven years old. I have seen his hair, which is black streaked with gray, when it was over two feet long and held with beaded ponytail holders a foot or so apart, and I have seen it much shorter, after he had shaved his head in mourning for a friend who had died. On the Rez
delivers a history of the Oglala nation that spotlights our paleface population in some of its most shameful, backstabbing moments, as well as a quick tour through Indian America. The latter, to be honest, seems a little too conscientiously cooked up from primary sources and news clippings. But elsewhere Frazier is in superb form, reporting everything he sees and hears with enviable clarity and promptly pulling the rug out from under himself whenever he seems too omniscient. Few accounts of reservation life have been this comical; even fewer have moved beyond the poverty and pandemic drunk driving to discern actual, theological wickedness on the premises: "At such moments a sense of compound evil--the evil of the human heart, in league with the original darkness of this wild continent--curls around me like shoots of a fast-growing vine." In the hands of many a writer, the previous sentence might resemble a rhetorical firecracker. In Frazier's, it comes off as a statement of fact--which is only one of the reasons why every American, Native or not, should take a look at this sad, splendid, and surprisingly hopeful book. --James Marcus
From Publishers Weekly
When telling non-Indians that he was writing a book about the American Indian, Frazier (Great Plains, etc.) received a nearly unanimous reaction: that the subject sounds bleak. "Oddly," he says, "it is a word I never heard used by Indians themselves." Frazier builds his narrative--or, more deliberately, unpacks it, since he has no discernable plot, chronology or conclusion--around his 20-year friendship with the Indian Le War Lance and the Oglala Sioux of South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation. Though no "wannabe" or "buckskinner," Frazier emulates and reveres "the self-possessed sense of freedom" that he claims is the Indian contribution to the American character, adopted by the earliest European settlers and preserved in our system of government. Frazier's record of his travels with Le War Lance includes the tolls of alcohol, fights and car wrecks (Le claims to have survived 11 of them) and acknowledges the realities as well as the clich?s of reservation life. But in his rendering, the calamities of American Indian life are outweighed by the pervasiveness and endurance of that same sense of freedom, a feeling that Frazier captures in his style, his organization, his wonderful eye for detail. Probably no book since Evan S. Connell's Son of the Morning Star has so imaginatively evoked the spirit of the American Indian in American life; like Connell's tours of the Little Bighorn battlefield, Frazier's visits to Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee, and to the descendants of Red Cloud and Black Elk, frame a broad meditation on American history, myth and misconception. Funny and sad, but never bleak, his meandering narrative is, in fact, the composite of many voices and many kinds of history. Agent, Andrew Wylie. (Jan.)
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