The Bookworm: Dakota

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris. 236 pages. Ticknor & Fields. 1993.

Ironically, it is in choosing the stability of the monastery or the Plains, places where nothing ever happens, places the world calls dull, that we discover that we can change. In choosing a bare-bones existence, we are enriched, and can redefine success as an internal process rather than an outward display of wealth and power.

I boycotted the Super Bowl. As you know I’m no fan of that pro football league, so I decided not to watch the gaudy, corporate cum fiesta that is its championship game because I had no interest in either team or the outcome. Two years ago I wanted the Colts to beat the Bears, and last year I was cheering for the giant-killer Giants, but this time around I didn’t care. On the bus on Friday a fellow Iowa transplant asked me who I thought would win. I gave him the boilerplate answer I have for games I don’t care about: “I don’t know. It should be a good game.” After he got off I decided I wanted the Steelers to win. The Steel City. The Terrible Towel. Jennifer “She’s a Ma-niac, Ma-niac” Beals. Yeah! Though I’ve never been there, I imagine Phoenix is a bigger version of Palm Springs: hot, fake, overflowing with old people, and hot. It’s a place that doesn’t deserve to be champions of shit.

Anyway, that’s not what I want to talk about.

In the early 1970s Kathleen Norris left New York City and moved to Lemmon, a small town of only 1,600 in the northwest corner of South Dakota. The family had inherited her grandparents’ little house and farming interests, so Norris and her husband decided to live there for a few years and make an adventure of it. They’ve been there ever since.

Although Norris can’t pinpoint the reason why they stayed, she cites a growing love of the prairie and small town quietness as factors. Norris, who spent some of her youth in Hawaii, developed a deep spiritual and natural connection with the Great Plains, its culture, and its people, and Dakota: A Spiritual Geography is a collection of moving and well-written essays detailing the experiences, beauty, and quirks of rural North and South Dakota that has kept her there for over 20 years.

Dakota is the other paperback I bought at Acres’ closing sale (another tear rolls down my cheek). I found it in the nonfiction/essays section where Making Hay was also located. I took a small risk in buying it. Usually books have a simple, short outline on the back cover — something to give potential readers a hint of what’s inside — but there are only review accolades on Dakota’s back. I don’t remember if I read a few excerpts or the reviews, but when I took it to the register I didn’t know if it was something I wanted to read or not. The longing I had for the Midwest urged me to buy it, so I obliged and had no clue what it was about until a week ago.

This, more so than Making Hay, is another jewel of used bookstore literature. The copy I bought was a first edition, but Dakota has also gone through subsequent printings. Norris’ essays range from small town insularity, the love/hate relationship farmers have with the Great Plains (which is actually more like a prairie desert where she lives, often receiving less annual rainfall than Los Angeles), the affects of the 1980s farm crisis, and the cultural divide between those who live in town and those who live on farms. Interspersed between the essays are short anecdotes and scenes, sometimes presented in the form of diary-like weather reports. The writing is precise, lyrical, and moving. The Dakota’s are not a place for everyone (just like this book is not for everyone), but I think she does a good job of exploring and elucidating her fascination with it. Her sentiments are similar to those I’ve developed regarding Iowa, so it was easy for me to empathize.

Her accounts of the land, the people, and their lives were compelling to me, but her obsession with monasticism and the rediscovery of what she called her “grandmother’s religion” became too distracting. When Norris arrived on the Plains she was a disillusioned Christian, probably an agnostic of even an atheist. Over time she returned to her Presbyterian roots and has since became a Benedictine oblate, attending religious conferences and staying in monasteries. She even sometimes serves as an interim pastor and service leader for the churches in her area. Monasticism and her experiences with monks and nuns feature prominently in her essays, and by the end of the book they completely overpower the geography aspect. The later essays were Dakota related — throughout the book she compares life in the Dakota’s to monastic ascetics — but I felt the focus had shifted, which I did not like. She’s not preachy — she maintains an observationalist perspective throughout, I thought — but it was just too much.

New words I learned: Dakota presented a cornucopia of interesting and unknown words to me. Ascetic: “characterized by or suggesting the practice of severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons.” Anachronism: “a thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists, esp. a thing that is conspicuously old-fashioned.”

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