Former North Dakotan and retired academic Brenda Daly has a new blog, www.readingnorthdakota.net, that is devoted to books about North Dakota or by North Dakota authors. Ole Rolvaag’s homesteading classic, Giants in the Earth, was the first book to be discussed. The January selection is Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For, and I have happily agreed to answer any questions Dakota readers might have. You don’t have to be from North Dakota to join in!
Posts Tagged ‘Dakota’
Skyping last night with a book club from Grand Forks, North Dakota, I had the chance to reconnect with a college buddy I haven’t seen for years. I was really pleased to get a couple of tough questions from the club, and of course I’m always happy to talk about the research that went into writing Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For, as well as the process of writing itself. Sometimes I hear from readers who just aren’t sure whether they like the central character, Frances Bingham, who can be just as bad as Scarlett O’Hara, and just as driven as that famous North Dakotan, Jay Gatsby, but this crew got right behind her.
Thanks, Kim, for inviting me into your living room. It was great to catch up, and nice to talk with your club.
March is not when most folks choose to visit North Dakota. Go figure. I, however, am looking forward to a visit to Bismarck State College, March 1-4, 2012, as a Visiting Writer (with a reading/book signing at 7:30 p.m. at the Student Union on March 1). I was especially pleased to have Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For selected for BSC’s 2012 BookTalk series, along with Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and Will Weaver’s Red Earth, White Earth. I will be leading the discussion of Dakota on March 4, 1-3 p.m. at the BSC Library.
Three months ago you may have been watching news stories and videos about the flooding of the Souris River (locally known as the Mouse River) in Minot, North Dakota, that put 12,000 residents, or one-fourth of the city’s population, out of their homes. The flood waters didn’t recede for about three weeks, leaving thousands of homes and businesses uninhabitable. This afternoon, after spending the morning talking with members of the North Dakota Library Association (who had chosen Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For as their 2011 conference “book club” book) and then speaking at the noon luncheon, I went for a walk through block after block of flood-gutted neighborhoods.
After a half-day of using the pronouns “I” and “me” way too often, it was a sobering walk, all the more disconcerting under a perfect, cloudless, azure sky . (An aside: I have a college buddy who has lived and worked in Manhattan for the past 20 years, and who is now working in Minot as a consultant for a year. Visiting last night over our ritual martinis I asked how often she got back to New York. Her contract allowed her to return every two weeks, she said, but at one point she realized that she hadn’t been back East for a couple of months. “I just couldn’t leave the sky,” she explained.)
I took pictures of gutted houses, of For Sale signs and doors littered with official notices, of debris and mud, of backhoes leveling the dikes that just couldn’t do enough, of FEMA trailers, of children’s toys in gutters, and of evergreen trees that stand, along with the silt-filthed siding on houses, as records of the final flood level: dead branches that were too long under water separated by a straight line from the green foliage above. And when I returned to my hotel room, I deleted most of the pictures, for, one by one, they diminished, rather than proved the destruction. Here, however, are a few:
I was reminded of the time I spent in Louisiana in 2005 after Katrina, and of the day that another volunteer and I drove through New Orleans in our Red Cross truck, creeping along deserted streets and overpasses strewn with items that had been transformed from personal belongings to debris by a disaster. The destruction in Minot is exponentially smaller in comparison, but comparisons don’t matter much if it’s your house, your home that has been lost.
This is not, of course, where the story ends. North Dakotans are a contradictory people, expecting to be regularly humbled by the cavalier power of floods, blizzards, drought, and wind, and equally determined to restamp the land with their own particular brand of tidy order. The community is busy reclaiming and rebuilding, and although the flood-ravaged neighborhoods are eerily lacking the sounds of doors slamming, phones ringing, children playing, and music blaring from passing cars, they are not silent. One by one houses are being stripped down to the studs, so the remodeling and rebuilding can begin. Backhoes are clearing debris. Dump trucks and contractors’ pickups are everywhere.
I don’t mean to be glib. This is not a happily-ever-after story. Too many of the people put out of their homes by the flood of 2011 will never return to the home they once knew. And yet, there is a spirit in this place that is hard to define. Rounding the corner of a seemingly empty block, I came upon a woman mowing…well, not her lawn, exactly, but the weeds that had worked their way through the muck where a lawn once had been. Was that her house, I asked? “For now,” she replied, adding that she didn’t know the exact wording for the financial/legal process underway concerning her mortgage, but she supposed that the house was going back to the original owners. In the meantime, she was living in the tiny FEMA trailer next to the gutted house. I wished her luck and was about to walk away, when she added, “I’ll get lights up on the trailer, though. For Christmas. My girls will like that.”
One last picture. In the midst of block after block of empty houses I came upon this house, tidily restored to a determined cheerfulness. Given the house’s recent history, a doorstep knickknack carrying the words, “God Bless This House,” seems less like kitsch than defiant optimism.
The trailer for Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For is ready for viewing! Check it out on
(The trailer will be up on the ‘Home’ page of my website soon.)
What are the books that you reread, reread, reread?
Here are some on my repeat list: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Gatsby speaks to me as a Midwesterner, more so as a North Dakotan. Housekeeping is smart, funny, unexpected, quiet and deep, not to mention written in language so gorgeous it practically scans. It also has a killer ending. And Lolita? I admit that this one hasn’t held up for me the way the others have, but it was absolutely central to my development as a reader. More on these another day.
It is Middlemarch, however, that I expect to continue to read and study and love. Virginia Woolf called it one of the few English novels written for grown-up people, and it makes its way onto all the lists of great English novels. I love its ambition, how it is about a society entire. I love its protagonist, the intelligent idealist, Dorothea Brooke, who must learn to temper her idealism with the disappointments and limitations of the real world. I love the 19th-century novel’s mixture of complex characters and caricatures. I love the breadth and scope of a book that insists that the reader really live within a universe contained within the covers. This is a book for reading, not grazing. But what really takes my breath away, what keeps me coming back, is that combination of intelligence and insight and moral bravery that results in language like this, a paragraph that I keep by my desk. This is why I write.
Not that this inward amazement of Dorothea’s was anything very exceptional: many souls in their young nudity are tumbled out among incongruities and left to ‘find their feet’ among them, while their elders go about their business. Nor can I suppose that when Mrs. Casaubon is discovered in a fit of weeping six weeks after her wedding, the situation will be regarded as tragic. Some discouragement, some faintness of heart at the new real future which replaces the imaginary, is not unusual, and we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
I spent this past Thursday in Stratford, Ontario, with a trio of amazing artists: photographer and filmmaker
Scott did the cover art for Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For. What a pleasure, and honor, to work with this team of professionals as we develop a book “trailer” for Dakota. I hope to have something to share by early August. David, Christina and Scott have collaborated on several projects. Take a look at some of their work
I first discovered Scott’s work a couple of summers ago when I was in Stratford to take in a couple of plays at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and stopped for lunch at the restaurant Down the Street.
The interior walls were covered with theater posters done by Scott, and I was blown away by their precision and intelligence and flat-out beauty.
So it was fun to be back in Stratford once again, and to be working with these really fine artists.
I can be a little slow on the uptake. For example, when I finished Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For, which is set in late nineteenth-century Dakota Territory, and someone called it historical fiction, I was a little surprised. I hadn’t meant to be writing within a specific genre, but, as a matter of fact, if a novel begins 134 years ago, it is historical fiction. A historical novel may also be literary fiction. It may be a mystery, or a romance, or gay or lesbian fiction, or feminist fiction, or sci-fi, or horror, or a host of other things. It may be “serious” fiction–think Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall–or it may be “fluff” (I’ll let you choose an example).
But what I learned this weekend at the Historical Novel Society Conference, where I was on a panel on “Writing Gay Characters,” is that the best historical novelists have in common a passion for history, a scholarly dedication to historical accuracy, and (no surprise here) a good story to tell. And maybe this was just a particularly nice bunch of people, but I was struck by the consistent generosity (and absence of posturing) of the attendees, as well-known writers whose books live on the bestseller lists mingled with first-time novelists and not-yet-published writers, while agents and editors steadily listened to pitches and patiently answered questions.
I had great conversations with physicians and lawyers and academics and scientists and theologians and actors and musicians, all of whom were identifying this weekend as writers of historical fiction.
Better still, Jennifer Weltz of the Jean Naggar Literary Agency (JVNLA), was there as a keynote speaker and panel moderator and general introducer-of-interesting-persons, making me feel very lucky to be represented by this agency. A lunch at the beginning of the conference, hosted by Jennifer, gave me the opportunity to meet my fellow JVNLA authors,
I also had the chance to meet one of the conference’s guests of honor, Cecelia Holland, who had written a really great (boxed)
Finally, I’d just like to give a shout out to
With a day off between the book party in Richland, Washington, and the upcoming Historical Novel Society Conference in San Diego this weekend, Lance and Terri (my Washington hosts) and I headed into the Yakima Valley wine-producing region to taste some wines. Quite a range of quality (and really, it doesn’t take too many “tastes” to muddle the palate), but we had a great time, and ended up really enjoying a cabernet franc and a Bordeaux blend by Gamache Vintners.
It is always fascinating for me to visit a location from my past. I had forgotten how this area of southeastern Washington, with its treeless mini-mountains, is (for me) this weird combination of desolation and beauty. Even more than western North Dakota, this place makes me fantasize about being a cowboy (which, in my fantasies, is a gender-neutral concept, of course).