Detailed look at Kansas county helps us understand ourselves

December 29, 1991|By Rebecca W. Boylan

PRAIRYERTH.

William Least Heat-Moon.

Houghton Mifflin.

622 pages. $24.95. William Least Heat-Moon's last book, "Blue Highways," was a down-to-earth, low-key travelogue about visiting America through its back roads. I had enjoyed it mostly because it didn't attempt to turn the back-roads people he met into dull country, hick stereotypes, or into undiscovered super-beings: the essence of America found at last.

As I pored through "PrairyErth," all 622 pages of it, I continually asked: Why is he writing this? I didn't ask because the answer was elusive, but because it was constantly changing. In short, I found several reasons for this book. I think looking at these reasons gives an overview of Mr. Heat-Moon's recent journey into Chase County, Kansas.

He spent nearly five years studying and contemplating Chase County -- through its land, history, animals and people. Still, he admits that there were several people's stories, white and American Indian, that he simply didn't have room to include in his book, but whose essence pervades it like spirits.

Chase County's population is 3,013 (as it was in 1873); its land measures 30 miles in length and 26 miles in width. Its hills are of limestone, its prairies of grass and coyotes. It boasts being as near as one place can get to dead center of the United States. In recounting its inhabitants' dogmatic (often prejudiced) opinions, cautious reserve, hearty optimism, uncomplaining endurance and slowness to change, Mr. Heat-Moon finds himself explaining the historical and sociological evolution of all Middle America.

One of his pursuits, in fact, is to broaden our knowledge of Kansas (and in some ways, of all rural Middle America) beyond rTC the labels of the land of natural disaster (the tornado in "The Wizard of Oz"), the land of human disaster (the brutal murders in Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood"), and the land of physical boredom (endless flat prairies).

Mr. Heat-Moon doesn't argue with any of the above. In fact, in one of the opening chapters we meet Tom Bridge, who calmly relates the several floods he and his family escaped from -- but not his house or possessions. Second, many of the author's tales about people include the violent urges. However, Mr. Heat-Moon portrays these as common to any close-knit community simultaneously struggling to be independent from, and reactive to, a nation that is more often than not oblivious to the community's true character.

Finally, the author takes us on many sojourns in the prairie grasses. They are neither flat nor endless. We climb on limestone outcropping, tread up and down hills and valleys and stomp through high grasses whose density makes them

seem a dry jungle.

A second reason for "PrairyErth" is to use travel through space as a paradigm for travel through time: past, present and future. To trace time's interwoven threads, Mr. Heat-Moon interviews elderly people such as Blanche Schwilling, who virtually holds together the tiny town of Bazaar by preaching a devotional and ringing the bell at the church every Sunday; young people, such as the high school students, very definite about whether they will stay in Chase County upon graduation; and some of the county's earliest inhabitants: the American Indians, who trust in a connection between life and death and who have a patience that allows them to follow nature instead of controlling it.

Mr. Heat-Moon talks to those living and listens to the stories of the deceased as he reads letters and newspaper articles in county records. These are a people who have had to adapt according to nature's whims and man's progress. Mr. Heat-Moon is a champion storyteller who lets his characters' actions and thoughts blend realism and hope gently, but not sentimentally. When he explains the tales either before or after their telling, they become trivialized and deadened.

There are many other reasons for this book, including to show how we've become careless about protecting natural resources; to emphasize the irony that loneliness breeds not a desire to think for oneself but instead a stifling conformity; and to connect thought with reality by using hundreds of short quotations from novelists, essayists, politicians, environmentalists, etc., to begin each chapter on a particular town in Chase County.

I'm glad Mr. Heat-Moon wrote this book, if for no other reason than as an analogue for what we all should do: educate ourselves more about where or who've we've come from, especially in terms of where we are headed.

What is our own calling in our small space on this planet? How will our choices, prejudices against and pursuits for affect not only our own destinies but those of the people to come after us? Mr. Heat-Moon is a bit pretentious at times in vocabulary, a bit boring with his fixation on cartography, a bit long-winded in pointless digressions and repetitions. But he can lay claim to a musing, conversational style that beckons the reader to share a journey he might not otherwise take.

Ms. Boylan is a writer who lives in the Washington area.

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