Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography--Review

There was no need, of course, for me to select a book for the United States for the 52-Countries Challenge, as I've read a great deal of work by writers from my own land. And yet, since I've been reading systematically from region to region, it seemed a bit odd to jump over a great expanse of North America. I decided to select a few pieces of non-fiction--works that I had always meant to read, but for some reason or another, never got around to picking up.

I first became aware of Kathleen Norris's "Dakota: A Spiritual Geography" when I first moved to Hawai'i. Her meditations on choosing to move to an isolated area of the Great Plains had been published a few years before, when I was still living abroad, and I had never heard of it. It was displayed prominently in every bookstore on O'ahu, since Kathleen Norris spent her high school years on the island (graduating from Punahou) and I meant to pick it up during my years in Hawai'i, but her I never got around to it. When I was plotting my challenge course, I realized that North Dakota (where I thought this book was set) was one of the three states where I have never been; I thought this was the perfect choice.

Well, it turned out to be not such an excellent choice after all. For one,  Kathleen's home was in South Dakota, but she made a persuasive claim that the true division between the two states is not north to south, but from east to west. The eastern part of the states belong more to the tidy farmlands of the upper Midwest; the western part of the states, where she resided, have more in common with the western, still-frontier mentality of Montana and Wyoming. Water and geography have much to do with this true internal division, and she writes at great length about the flora and fauna of the countryside, and the great expanses of land--the sheer distances that people must travel just to get from one point to another. I was fascinated to read that the ethnic boundaries still exist from the railways sent out advertising fliers to villages in the north of Europe; by happenstance, Ms Norris lived in a town that was originally founded by Norwegians--an unexpected link to my previous challenge selections.This was the best part of the memoir for me.

My accidental selection of the wrong state, then didn't really matter, but it turns out that I had other issues with the book. For one thing, it is seriously dated. Modern life can pretty much be divided into pre-Internet and post-Internet eras, and I could not help wondering if the parochialism and social isolation of the people she writes about almost twenty years ago still exist today. Then, too, the Great Plains was in the middle of a severe economic depression from the land price crash, and though there are areas of the Dakotas that are still struggling, other places have become noted boom-towns. None of this, of course, can be addressed in this book, but I was hoping, as her memoir is now almost two decades old, that Ms. Norris would find it appropriate to add an afterword, especially as it was briefly a best seller. Perhaps a new anniversary addition will be published next year.

Neither of these things, of course, are Kathleen Morris's fault. There are other things, however, that I didn't care for. It's really a series of essays, or rather snippets of thought--some only a page long--of her own private musings. Often she she seems to place the polishing of a pretty phrase over coherence;  it felt more as if some of the fragments were more likely to be found in a column in The New Yorker. I tend to not like this sort of thing--the easterner's I've-moved-out-and-I've-discovered the-west proclamations to the envious (or incredulous) folks back home. But then, I'm not crazy about E. Annie Proulx's posturings, either. Again, this is a matter of taste; many people like these sort of poetical meditations; other people might find them undisciplined or self-indulgent.

I don't know. What struck me, while I was reading this book, was a sort-of protesting-too-much insistence on how great it all was, and a bit of vagueness on why Norris had moved back to her grandparents's abandoned home to begin with. I've read quite a few of these memoirs of the transplanted, probably because I've moved so much myself, and it's usually fairly easy to gauge early on whether the newcomer will make a permanent go of the new land. When the newcomer clings to an intellectual superiority there's always going to be trouble.  Christine Breen, transplanted New Yorker to County Clare, Ireland in "Oh, Come Ye Back to Ireland"? Yes, absolutely she adapted and stayed--she had even picked up a brogue when I met her. Mary Simetti, Sicily in "On Persephone's Island."? Once she talked about her children's educations and her ponderings on her eternal resting place and her frank uneasiness on leaving her bones in Italy the reader knew that, no matter how many decades Simetti had lived there, that she would not stay in Palermo forever. "An Italian Education" by Tim Parks?  Yes, he's in Verona for good.  Within a few pages of her rather cranky (OK, sneering depiction) of her neighbors I was certain that Kathleen Norris no longer lived in the quaint little town where she spent summers with her grandparents. I was absolutely sure that no matter how loudly she insisted I love it here and the monks are great and a poet can really THINK with all this emptiness and I will never ever leave was that she had, in fact, packed her bags and had made her exit. I googled her name and sure enough, she left the monks and the wide open spaces and moved back home to Hawai'i. True, she didn't move back until her husband died--that region of the country can be tough to deal with during the winter as an aging woman alone--but I can't help but think there was more going on. I can't help wondering, too, if she will stay in Hawai'i. People not originally from that state do tend to eventually leave, too, as an acquaintance of mine, who spent over thirty years on O'ahu but finally left, pointed out to me just a few weeks ago.

It's not Kathleen Norris's fault that she changed her mind, and I would certainly give her a pass on what seems to be emotional dishonesty if I didn't find  more of a bit of condescension in her depiction of her neighbors. How dare the local librarian see herself as an intellectual! And how the church ladies gossip! I can't help but think that Kathleen's fascination with the monks and the cloistered life was an attempt to draw herself as far away from the mundane world that she was forced to inhabit. I'm sure that her spirituality is genuine, but she goes on at wearisome length on  the wise-to-the-ways-of-the-world yet serenely detached monks; it all became a bit tiresome. And her amazingly tin-eared comparison of the dry land farmers to the Hidasta and Sioux living in their midst--why the farmers are endangered, too. (Granted, she makes this comparison with much tip-toeing and hesitating in fear that people will misunderstand--but nevertheless she does dare to makes this comparison; it is astonishingly insulting.)

The writing is beautiful. Parts of it, such as "Evidence of Failure"--a catalog of things gone wrong from the dust on her piano,  the overgrown graves of her grandfather's first children, and the quilt still on the attic bed in an abandoned house--are very poignant. And her fascination with the spiritual is certainly of interest to many people, as evidenced by the growing popularity of convents and monasteries as temporary retreats for those exhausted by modern life. I can't help but think that my lack of response to this book was partly due to my own shortcomings, so I will be generous in my ratings.

                                                                 Three Stars


To my delight, Lewis and Clark were mentioned several times in "Dakota A Spiritual Geography". The expedition spent a winter in Sioux lands; it is the next book in my challenge.

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