studies in travel writing

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Heat-Moon, William Least, PrairyErth: A Deep Map (London: Andre Deutsch, 1999).

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 the central grasslands, captures the essence of the American tallgrass 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.

Chase County is a sparsely populated tract 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 cafés. 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 lightning; unearths a century-old unsolved murder; interviews a retired postmistress, 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.

Each of the book's vivid and evocative chapters is totally unexpected, yet 'unexpected Kansas must be sought in its remoteness, a place you find only with effort.' The millions who have read Blue Highways, and those who have yet to encounter the genius of William Least Heat-Moon's writing, will find that he is one of those rare modern writers who can change forever the way we see America and ourselves.

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