77 North Washington Street

IAN Frazier, the author of this month's cover story, displays a quintessentially American impulse: he is drawn toward the West. He has moved to Montana from New York three times during the past twenty years, to live for extended periods. After the second of those migrations Frazier produced his best-selling book (1989), a warm and idiosyncratic travelogue that achieved instant status as an American classic. His most recent migration lasted from 1995 until just a few months ago. The product this time is a book about life among the Oglala Sioux, from which our cover story has been drawn.

Photograph by Guy Kloppenburg  Oglala Chief Red Cloud's grave

What impelled Frazier toward the Sioux? Part of the answer involves a friendship, begun in New York, with a man named Le War Lance, who moved back to the reservation. Another part involves something broader. "Great Plains was a pretty romantic book, full of writing about all those empty vistas," Frazier says. "I realized that there was a very different way of looking at this part of the world. The idea of the pristine continent is a complete fantasy, and yet we keep playing it over and over again. I went so far with the 'empty vista' view that I had to snap back and look at it from another direction. Because, of course, the people who came and started writing about that pristine continent were being watched from the beginning by other people, who were saying, 'Here they come.'"

Frazier, who is forty-eight, grew up in Hudson, Ohio; he traced the skeins of his background and the contours of his upbringing in the book Family (1994). For two decades, starting in the mid-1970s, he was a writer primarily for The New Yorker. His humor and reporting have been appearing in The Atlantic Monthly since 1981. Frazier now lives in Montclair, New Jersey -- but is still looking west.

Depending on the weather, the 780-mile trip from Frazier's sometime base in Missoula, Montana, to the Pine Ridge reservation, in South Dakota, could take as long as three days. (Unimpeded by blizzards, Frazier set a personal land-speed record of thirteen and a half hours.) From time to time Frazier took advantage of his location to venture in the other direction -- to Alaska, and thence across the Bering Sea into Siberia. Siberia will be the subject of his next book.


Photograph by Guy Kloppenburg.

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1999; 77 North Washington Street - 99.12; Volume 284, No. 6; page 6.