Growing up Hard in the West: “Ghost Dances” in Dakota and “Full Body Burden” in Colorado

ACORN Ideas and Issues

Vancouver   Two books I read on the planes, boats, and trains of this road trip went back to the author’s roots and my own in the West with powerfully evocative writing and hardscrabble truths painfully won.  Ghost Dances:  Proving Up on the Great Plains by Josh Garrett-Davis caught my eye when he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on McGovern’s death and indicated he was the son of two early organizers, who I remembered well, who worked with us at South Dakota ACORN in Sioux Falls in the mid-1970s.  Full Body Burden:  Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen was also a stumble-on that drew me for the years I lived in Colorado as a boy and the summers spent roaming the gullies of the western slope with my brother near the Colorado-Utah border and the months in Denver battling boredom, mumps, and Bible school.  These are very different books, but both offer significant rewards for readers, including the vast majority without boots on the floor.

Josh’s book is a young man’s story of growing up with a feeling of displacement from family, geography, and community, yet finding the magnetic attachment to place, the magical, subversive attraction of the Great Plains impossible to shake both because of his attraction to the land and his surprise at the deep story of his roots in the area which define him almost in spite of his contradictory feelings about the “hard” town of Pierre, South Dakota and his struggles to find a fit there.  Ghost Dances tries to weave true tales of the West and his search for some peace with the place with the facts of being a permanent outsider with parents from elsewhere with different politics, philosophy, and personal preferences, including his mother’s sexual choices after his parents separated.  He definitely has a story to tell and tells it well, though despite my connection to the family and interest in how they “turned out,” so to speak, I found his writing most effective when he was searching for his own personal “plains” truth in history, landscapes, and family, rather than when he was writing his own brief.  As he argues in his chapter on the “buffalo commons,” it isn’t clear that the West is made for habitation by people of any kind and certainly its history is well populated with misfits and characters of all shapes, sizes and combinations that have made their way and weathered on in the vast unforgiving space that largely forgets people entirely and blows much of what – and who – they were out with the constant wind.  In that sense both he and his parents were naturals for the land, place, and space and fit perfectly for their time and trouble, which might be why it seems that Josh has in fact “proven up” so well.

Iversen’s story of growing up in the shadow of Rocky Flats, the infamous plutonium production facility in Arvada on the outskirts of Denver, is much harder and, worse, it is tragic, enduring, and unresolved.  There’s no nostalgia here.  You read the book hoping she escapes and gets out alive and in some kind of working order.  She had a miserably dysfunctional family with secrets and schisms of its own, but she and her siblings were part of the place in ways that Josh might only imagine and even envy.  They were on horseback and popped up all over like the prairie dogs around them from lake to land with a menagerie of dogs, turtles, and other animals in their wake as they were raised by wolves, oblivious about what was happening over the hill from them at Rocky Flats as the plant prepared for future world wars while wasting the land and killing its workers.  Iversen juxtaposes her own naiveté about the plant as interlacing with just trying to survive as just a Jane Doe of the working, suburban middle class, falling in love, enduring personal tragedy, working her way through school as a waitress and even in a stint in the secretarial pool at Rocky Flats as a contract worker, raising two boys as a single parent, and just maintaining.

Writing this book as a mature woman she largely keeps her own story in the background as ballast and touchstone to the growing tragedy of the Rocky Flats disaster conceived in an engineering mistake about wind directions, which should never allowed it to be sited so dangerously close to Denver and its population in the first place, and now a scar on the land and its people for perhaps thousands and thousands of years.   The Rocky Flats story is a big one and deserves attention.  She finds heroes aplenty, but in this harsh tale of the real and discarded West most of them are paid for their trouble in pain and death.  This is yet another relentless story of exploitation with a miserably unhappy ending since there seems no relief from this nuclear nightmare and no justice for any of its victims.  We are lucky that Iversen came to realize that her life was defined by her fear of her father and this plutonium plant, and she was able somehow to bring the “cry for help” that defines this book to reality.

I finished the book debating whether to call a friends who worked for SEIU who used to service the janitors contract at the plant towards the end of the Rocky Flats story when the job was not a stepping stone for Arvada’s workers moving to better pay, but subcontracted Service Contract Act work for immigrant hourly workers to see if he knew whether or not they knew how it might have impacted their members.  I wondered what the Steelworkers had done for the various workers they represented.

Mainly after reading both of these books, different and similar, and both excellent in their own ways, I came away wanting to shake Josh’s hand and wish him good fortune knowing his future is bright and track down Iversen the next time I’m on the University of Memphis campus and just give her a big hug.  All of us are blessed for our time in the West, carry it close, happy to make it out alive, and fortunate when we find a separate peace with the place and space as the years go by.