Josh Garrett-Davis

Josh Garrett-Davis has a twofold perspective on his childhood in South Dakota. Born there in 1980 to a young, liberal pair of transplants who ran record store/head shop, the author enjoyed an unconventional upbringing—particularly after his mother decamped for more hippie-friendly Portland. That divorce, and the teenage Garrett-Davis' immersion in South Dakota's punk rock scene (yes, there is one), constitute much of Ghost Dances: Proving Up on the Great Plains (Little, Brown, $25.99), but the wide-ranging book is more than a memoir. From his subsequent Amherst- and Columbia-educated perspective in Brooklyn, Garrett-Davis revisits the plains and dredges the archives for a cultural history of the grasslands, a harsh, unforgiving place where the weather always wins. With Willa Cather as his heroine, and former South Dakota governor Bill Janklow his villain, this writer asks, "Why does this semiarid country sprout (or attract) so many ornery, puffed-up visionaries and demagogues?" In that tradition he also places the populist crusader William Jennings Bryan and, more recently, the notorious Fred Phelps (leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, aka the "God hates fags" funeral picketers). Also prominent in Ghost Dances are the Indians and buffalo that depended on the grasslands that we nearly destroyed with plows and railroad tracks. Unknown to the early white pioneers, Garrett-Davis explains, three-quarters of the prairie's biomass was contained in the roots of that grass. Settlers only saw what was aboveground, unaware of the rich history beneath their feet. BRIAN MILLER

Wed., Aug. 29, 7 p.m., 2012

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