Monday, January 31, 2011

Debra Marquart, The Horizontal World

This is going to be Dakota Territory Week at BITS, with reviews of books by five writers who have written well about this big chunk of the continent that became North and South Dakota. I'm starting with this fine collection of personal essays that is part memoir, part social history, and part appreciation for the lunar topography of the northern Great Plains.

Out here, reminders of the geological past are everywhere in the flat expanse of inland seafloor, the rolling terrain of glacial morrain, and the rocks that surface each year in the fields and need to be cleared by hand. Part tongue in cheek, the book's subtitle is Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere.

Marquart, descendant of German-speaking immigrants from Russia, tells of the generations of her family, who have farmed the same North Dakota homestead since the late 19th century. Born the last of five siblings, she grows up driving tractors and pickups and doing chores from an early age, while yearning, always yearning, for escape - life being ever elsewhere.

North Dakota wilderness, photo by Bobjgalindo
With a career as a singer for a heavy metal band behind her and currently teaching creative writing at Iowa State, she looks back over the years, aware that her identity is still linked to her roots "in the middle of nowhere" and to a family that cannot comprehend any of the life she has lived since she left home. Most poignant are her memories of her father, whose funeral begins the book.

In another chapter, an episode on an out-of-state trip with both elderly parents ("To Kill a Deer") is a groaningly hilarious tribute to the impossibility of communicating across generations. Other subjects covered are the special trials of growing up female in a farming community, including the imagined trauma of being among its first settlers from the Old Country. There's also the tenuous self-esteem of North Dakotans whose most well-known celebrity is Lawrence Welk.

Marquart is a fine, entertaining, and moving writer, an eloquent voice for the diminishing number of those who grew up on small family farms on the Great Plains.

Photo credit:

Coming up: Ian Frazier, On the Rez


  1. Neat cover and the book sounds interesting. The Great Plains are interesting. Will you include Kathleen Norris' memoir, "Dakota" in your readings? I am currently reading Frazier's book on Siberia.

  2. I think there are no states more foreign to me than those two.

  3. We spend some time in South Dakota every summer, It is one of our favorite places.-Was in Spearfish last week (business)They have a lot of snow.
    Love the sub title, Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere

    As we citizens of the great state of Wyoming say--been there done that.

  4. Cheyenne, I almost added a caption to say that the book cover really does have the horizon turned vertically.

    Sage, It's been too many years since I read Norris' book. It's good, but I don't trust my memory of it to write a review.

    Patti, I think Alaska would rank as my "most foreign" state.

    OGR, not sure how you measure such a thing, but I think there's more nowhere in SD and ND than there is in Wyoming.

  5. I enjoyed this review. That photo you put up in your post is so beautiful.

    I agree that Alaska seems like the most foreign state. My parents said that when they were stationed in Hawaii that they felt they were in a foreign country, but I didn't get that when I was there.