I am hoping when I say "Dakota" by Kathleen Norris most of you know what I am talking about. When her book came out in 1993 it was a 'must read' for everyone who lived out here on the prairies. Norris went on to write many more books that dealt with spiritual matters that came out of the time she spent with the Benedictine monks at Richardton ND and at Collegeville MN. She equated the prairie life with the solitary life of the monastics and she wasn't far wrong.
She lived for a number of years with her husband in Lemmon SD which is part of the territory of my families in South Dakota. Her book mentions Bison where Dad grew up and also many of the little post offices in the surrounding area -- Meadow, Chance, Thunder Hawk. A friend of mine who grew up in Lemmon when Norris was living there said people spoke of her with some skepticism because even though her grandmother had lived there for years and her mother and even she herself had visited there from time to time, she was not part of the life of the community. She was always an outsider. Having grown up in Hawaii and New York City her realm of reality was far different than the folks in Lemmon. They always wondered about her and her husband.
Norris is a poet and so much of her writing of prose sounds more like poetry. Her description of the cold weather in February -- "I walk downtown, wearing a good many of the clothes I own, keeping my head down and breathing through several thicknesses of a wool scarf. A day so cold it hurts to breathe. Spring seems far off, impossible, but it is coming." In her book she also explores the culture of small towns. Writing at the time of the farm crisis, she describes the pain the ranching families have gone through and something of the unreality of the idea that if they work hard enough they can make their life succeed. Her words make you feel the pain of the rural families and their struggle to survive.
There is also the pain of knowing you can never belong in that place. It takes several generations of living there before you can really be a part. She mentions how professional people like teachers, doctors, pastors and others are always labeled and the line is, "I wonder how long they will stay here." Our sense being that if they were really good at what they did they wouldn't want to stay here in this place we call home.
Her understanding of the pain we prairie dwellers feel, the isolation we experience, and the sense of insecurity are all intertwined with the resilience, the strength and the great love we all feel for the land.
DAKOTA is a book to be read slowly, to be savored, and
then perhaps read again to grasp the poetry and the depth of the author's understanding of the prairies.