Book Review: Infinite West by Fraser Harrison

British travel writer Fraser Harrison knows most travelogues are written with the writer’s home country in mind. He admits, though, that he didn’t necessarily aim Infinite West: Travels in South Dakota at British or other readers. He also is addressing “the people who inhabit the exotic land through which I journeyed.” Although writing as a tourist, he intends to describe the face of South Dakota to those who live here.

infinte westThe extent to which Harrison succeeds may be in the willingness of the reader to accept Harrison’s outsider and more objective view of the state and its history. Don’t be mistaken. Fraser is infatuated, if not in love with South Dakota. It’s just that he occasionally makes factual and historical observations perhaps no longer apparent to many of us who live here may be somewhat immune. This recurs throughout the book, whether from his visit to a town named Harrison (simply because he has the same name) to exploring part of the Lewis and Clark trail to the Badlands to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. What these things have in common for Fraser seems to be how they reflect the state and its people.

Another theme running through Infinite West is Fraser’s use of his travels and experiences in South Dakota to recall episodes of is own life. He not only tells us of his fascination with the American West growing up, but it is not uncommon for his geographic tales and descriptions to inspire reminiscing that isn’t directly connected to the state.

Still, it is the face that South Dakota presents the world that comes through. Take the town of Harrison, for example. Located west of Corsica, it is representative of many small towns in South Dakota — and many that have already disappeared. With a population of less than 50 in 2010, it is “an old person’s town.” In 2000, more than half its residents were age 65 or older. Although it has a variety of well-kept homes and two churches, there are no businesses. And what struck Harrison in visiting with the town’s residents was their tendency toward certitude. “They had been taught by their church and their parents that the Bible contained answers to all the philosophical questions that might otherwise have disturbed them,” Fraser says, “and I felt I was confronting a mind-set that, for all its friendliness, had not changed since 1884, when the original settlers had founded their church.”

While many South Dakotans may not say so out loud, few of us who have spent any time in the state’s small, aging and declining communities can deny this. Whether pioneer spirit, a strong streak of conservatism or, as Fraser says, “the product of a particular set of historical circumstances that was no longer available to South Dakotans,” this is often the face the state’s smaller communities may present.

It isn’t as though South Dakotans are blind to change. In fact, his journey to Deadwood recalls the reaction of many of the state’s residents to its conversion to a “town-sized casino.” Although Fraser believes the town gained some “probity” since his first visit there in 1992, there still is evidence of how we tend to disguise aspects of our history. For example, a tourism brochure describes Dakota Territory as having been “fairly uninhabited” before gold was discovered by the Custer expedition in 1874. How many of us have asked the question that struck Frasier: “why did a simple reconnaissance expedition require the protection of a thousand soldiers, three Gatling guns and a cannon?”

This also is seen in Fraser’s visit to the site of the Wounded Knee massacre, one of several he’s made on his various journeys to the site. It is a place he believes everyone should visit. To him, Wounded Knee “is the quintessential locus of the Sioux’s subjugation,” and historically crucial.

[Wounded Knee] represents a symbol not only of the Sioux’s final, conclusive defeat, but of the last perceived challenge to the white population’s acquisition of the Sioux’s traditional lands. The latter aspect of its symbolism is not often acknowledged… South Dakota was wrested from its American Indian occupants, a fact that does not deserve to be erased by tourism’s need for an inoffensive account of history. Among other things, Wounded Knee is a monument to the country’s completed transition to white authority, and it is therefore worth seeing because it quantifies the price of that transition and shows who paid it.

It would be wrong to conclude that Fraser doesn’t see beauty and good in South Dakota and is people. In fact, Infinite West often seems a paean to the state. Still, one of his goals was to perhaps those of us who live here to see it from an outsider’s perspective. Although some may take offense at them, views such as those set out above are necessary for that goal. After all, looking at ourselves in a mirror does not always reveal what others see.

The Badlands was nature on acid; this was geography as psychedelia.

Fraser Harrison, Infinite West: Travels in South Dakota

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