A former BBC contributor’s history-cum-travelogue of the American West.
Slessor (Lying in State: How Whitehall Denies, Dissembles and Deceives, 2002, etc.) first traveled through the High Plains region on assignment from the BBC in 1961. His visit gave rise to a lifelong love affair with the West, a place the author saw as being the most quintessentially American of all places in the country. Here, Slessor interweaves memories of journeys through and stays in Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas with a history that begins with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. That event doubled the size of a fledgling nation by adding much of the land that would later become known as the High Plains and Midwest. The author recounts the stories of Lewis and Clark, who crossed the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase territory all the way to the Pacific Coast, and of the trappers, gold prospectors, young pioneer families, and religious dissidents known as Mormons who sought to make new lives. The westward push, which eventually involved the building of a transcontinental railroad, was not without its challenges: settlers and the U.S. military fought bitter and bloody battles, such as those at Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee, against Plains Indians unwilling to give up their territory. Slessor also traces the rise of the great cattle barons, some of whom came from Britain to become “self-styled ‘Gentlemen of the Prairie.’ ” He concludes with reflections on the exploits of Butch Cassidy, “the world’s favorite outlaw,” and the less glamorous men and women who tamed the often harsh and unforgiving Great Plains into agriculturally productive land. Slessor’s historical information is “distillation of other people’s books and articles,” and he offers no new insights into these well-known historical events. Some of his interesting anecdotes reveal his deep affection for the West, but because they do not form a coherent subnarrative, they distract rather than add to the overall narrative.
Well-informed but scattered and ultimately dispensable.