Review of Rozum, Grasslands Grown

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Molly P. Rozum, Grasslands Grown: Creating Place on the U.S. Northern Plains and Canadian Prairies. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021. 474 pgs. ISBN 9781496226716.

Reviewed by Laura Larsen.

Writing an intellectual history of the Prairies and northern Great Plains is a monumental challenge that Molly P. Rozum rises to with vigor. Grasslands Grown examines how children of the first settlers to this region – the “first grasslands-grown generations” – sought to shape the image of the region to those outside it (353). The regional settlement pattern spanned decades, so the book focuses on the 1860s through the 1930s; the emphasis is on the children of the first settlers to a specific area rather than a specific temporal period. Grasslands Grown makes the case these children’s experiences transcended the border between Canada and the United States but the border became more significant during their adult-lives as they interacted with and were influenced by larger political forces that reinforced the importance of the border and country rather than regional identities.

An intellectual history can encompass a broad range of areas through sciences and arts. Rather than providing an exhaustive survey, Rozum has reasonably chosen to focus on the arts, particularly works by writers and artists who grew up in the grasslands but who did not necessarily remain there as adults. She uses the lives of these writers and artists—some of whom remained well-known after their death, such as Wallace Stegner, but the majority of whom eventually faded from popular memory, such as Wilfrid Eggleston and Laura Goodman Salverson—to show not only how their work created a particular regional identity but how they struggled to be accepted as valid creators and equals to their central Canadian, eastern seaboard, and European counterparts.

Rozum argues these children experienced the grasslands of the Great Plains and the Prairies in a distinct way that future generations could not. The uniqueness of their experience rested on the fact that their settler-parents had not completely transformed the grasslands into agricultural plains, so as children they explored grasslands that were closer to the pre-European-style agricultural settlement environment. Although this experience is a theme throughout the book, chapters 2 and 3 focus specifically on this childhood and how later recollections of it were shaped by the grassland environment. Indeed, a central theme is that only this generation of children experienced the environment before it was heavily shaped by settler-agricultural practices most notably the ploughing of previously uncultivated space and the building of the transcontinental railway roads. Rozum demonstrates how growing up in this environment shaped their connections to the land through their lives; although they often saw environmental changes as inevitable progress, they held deep nostalgia for the “natural” or “wild” environment of their childhood. These chapters offer an excellent reflection on the intertwining of play and work for settler-children and move beyond the standard narrative of children as a source of farm labour. Rozum highlights how although the vast majority of the settlers were white, their various ethnicities created social hierarchies that children became more aware of when they began school. She also explores the intersections of race and class in this social hierarchy. African-American Era Bell Thompson experienced racism in her predominantly white school. But, because she had shoes to wear, she was seen as more fortunate than those white children who went barefoot. Additionally, Rozum highlights how the lack of adult surveillance allowed young adults to explore their sexuality more freely. In turn, these adult children later recounted this freedom in semi-autobiographical writing; the critical reception was mixed and perhaps part of the reason why it did not get mythologized in the same way as less controversial memories, such as early work/play with both domestic and wild animals and picking berries.

Children harvesting cabbages on the Hamilton farm, north of Edmonton. Provincial Archives of Alberta, P678.

Rozum astutely notes that as settler children embraced the grassland environment the state was severing Indigenous children from it through residential schools. Grasslands Grown points out that the displacement of Indigenous people was considered necessary for white settlement by the state but does not dwell on what should be widely known general history. Instead, the book focuses on the ways in which settler children related to Indigenous peoples. Although some people discussed in the book clung to the racist views perpetuated by their parents, the main focus is on children whose views changed over time and those who built more complex relationships as adults. Rozum spends considerable time discussing George Will’s relationships, as Will not only came to “deeply admire Indigenous women farmers” but his long-term connections notably with James Holding Eagle and his mother Scattered Corn, both Mandan, allowed him to access Indigenous agricultural knowledge and seeds—a great benefit in operating his garden seed company (175; 185-88). Rozum argues that Will and many others of his generation viewed themselves as being native to the grasslands because it was their birthplace and that encouraged their deep connection to the land. She critiques how this self-conception encouraged their appropriation of Indigenous knowledge, which they saw as valuable to improving settler culture. Grasslands Grown adds an interesting argument about early settler children’s relation to and with Indigenous peoples to the existing scholarship. Chapter 7 on “Agricultural Adaption and Grassland Conservation” emphasizes the struggle between the cost to modernize farming technics and the droughts of the 1930s that hampered the profitability of agriculture on the grasslands. It also includes an interesting examination of how nature study curriculums encouraged some students’ life-long fascination with the natural world that led them to later advocate for the conservation of what they saw as “natural” prairie grasslands.

Seargarts family posing with a binder. Provincial Archives of Alberta, P219.

A startling omission in Grasslands Grown is that there is no discussion of cooperatives, the cooperation of early settlers, or the formal cooperative movements. The book shows many ways that settlers’ children created the mythology of their parents’ settlement of the region, so it is therefore odd that Rozum does not address the formation of farmer-cooperative organizations like the Patrons of Husbandry (the Grange) in the United States or the Manitoba and North-West Farmers Co-Operative and Protective Union in Canada. Given the zealousness with the which these children recounted the hard work and ingenuity of their settler parents, it is strange that they apparently ignored their parents’ involvement (or lack thereof) in cooperative organizations. Since Grasslands Grown does not address this issue the reader is left uncertain as to whether the “children of the grassland” were so disconnected from the economic and political reality faced by their settler parents and their siblings who remained that they simply did not consider including it in their mythologization of grasslands settlement; or if they deliberately chose not to include it, similar to the way Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter Rose edited her writing to emphasize the importance of individualism. [1]

Grasslands Grown adds to the wider historiography on prairie and Great Plains culture. It is especially good at speaking to the emotional connections the children of settlers established both with the environment they grew up in and their mythologization of their parents’ settlement of the area. Rozum makes a compelling argument that the mythology of the experiences of the first settlers was shaped through the work of their adult children. Indeed, even when those children left the grasslands as adults on the basis that staying would have been stultifying, they still recalled their childhoods fondly and suggested that the environment they had been brought up in was foundational to their development and identity. Rozum highlights a great internal conflict of many grasslands settlers: pride in the environment and a great sense of connection to it, but shame at its lack of “real” culture and disdain (even self-directed loathing) for those who stayed. It is for this reason that anyone interested in the cultural environmental history of the Great Plains and Canadian Prairies should read Grasslands Grown.

[1] John E. Millers, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane: Authorship, Time, and Culture (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2008); Christine Woodside, Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books (New York: Arcade, 2016).

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Laura Larsen

Laura Larsen is a specialist in Western Canadian history with a particular focus on agriculture. She holds a PhD in history from the University of Saskatchewan. Her dissertation explores rail rationalization and agricultural policy under the Pierre Trudeau Liberal government.

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