One of the most exquisite books I have ever read, and a book that I repeatedly return to, is PrairyErth (A Deep Map) by William Least Heat-Moon (preview here). It is a book unlike any I've ever previously encountered and is really utterly brilliant, despite the fact that its entire focus (all 640 pages) is on a most insignificant place: Chase County, KS.

You do not need to be from Kansas to appreciate the book (indeed, it was a New York Times-bestseller and Book-of-the-Month Club selection)'s a book that speaks to the soul, encouraging you to dig deeper, wherever you may be.

From the inside cover:

PrairyErth is a vigorous and exalted evocation of the American land, its people, its past, its hopes. The very word "prairyerth," an old geologic term for the soils of our central grasslands, captures the essence of the American tall-grass country. Only a writer of William Least Heat-Moon's gifts could find in a single Kansas county the narrative of an epic, the nonfiction equivalent of the great American novel.

...Most American readers know three things about Kansas: it is flat, it has something to do with The Wizard of Oz, and the events of In Cold Blood took place there. Three illusions: the first is a lie, the second a fairy tale, the third a nightmare. Chase County is, however, a sparsely populated track in the Flint Hills of central Kansas, "the last remaining grand expanse of tallgrass prairie in America," and PrairyErth lovingly details its 744 square miles and 3,000 souls till it looms as large as the universe while remaining as intimate as a village.

PrairyErth is rich with Chase County's voices past and present, and is filled with anecdotes, gossip from its bars and cafes, Native American lore, and rueful tales of man's inhumanity to man and nature and of nature's indifference to humanity. Heat-Moon recounts the story of a farm couple swept aloft by a tornado; reveals an Indian recipe to avert lightening; unearths a century-old unsolved murder; interviews a retired post mistress, a cowboy, a quarryman, a coyote hunter, a young feminist rancher. PrairyErth sets the story of a nineteenth century tycoon, who dreamed of building a rail line to China through the county, against the memories of a retired Mexican railroad worker who can still recall every tie he spiked for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. It speaks of the passion of the slavery wars of Bleeding Kansas and the sad fate of the Kaw tribe, and gives us a hundred new ways to see stones, creeks, grasses, birds, beasts, and weather.


This weekend, Wichita public television station KPTS will be broadcasting the 90-minute documentary Return to PrairyErth by John O'Hara. Since we unfortunately missed the showing at Matfield Green last month, I cannot wait to see it!

The prairie, in all its expressions, is a massive, subtle place, with
a long history of contradiction and misunderstanding. But it is
worth the effort at comprehension. It is, after all, at the center of
our national identity. -- Wayne Fields, "Lost Horizon" (1988)


  1. Faith said...
    I read PrairyErth a long time ago, but I remember finding it depressing. I think it was the protagonist going through marital difficulties or something? Also, I have never been to Kansas and maybe I just didn't get it because I didn't have a frame of reference. But I haven't thought of this book in a long time. It is nice to get someone else's point of view.
    Kristine said...
    Faith, no, there's no marital difficulties. Perhaps it may have been because you've never been to Kansas. I guess it's not everyone's cup of tea...My grandmother is a lifelong Kansas resident and borrowed the book from me a year ago, but every time she tries to read it, claims that she just can't get into it.

    I find it deeply fascinating, but then I'm also crazy about researching every little detail of the places I visit, so that aspect really appealed to me. I have to say, we visited Chase County after I read the book & that was a bit of a letdown.

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