Sunday, September 18, 2016

Book Review: Dakota

A Fair Trade Book


Title: Dakota (A Spiritual Geography)

Author: Kathleen Norris


Date: 1983

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

ISBN: 0-395-63320-6

Length: 224 pages

Quote: “[The Dakota] region requires that you wrestle with it before it bestows a blessing.”

Kathleen Norris hardly needs introduction but, for the extremely young, let me note that this was the publishing phenomenon’s first prose book, a sort of prologue to the super-bestsellers Amazing Grace and The Cloister Walk. When Norris was writing these mostly short essays, she and husband David Dwyer didn’t realize that Dwyer had cancer or that Norris would, as a widow, become a Benedictine nun (although her religious affiliation was not Catholic but Presbyterian).

Amazing Grace and The Cloister Walk were shaped partly by the 1990s’ brief fascination with monastic life; when publishers were paying for Norris to write about spending more and more time in convents and monasteries, fashion designers were marketing practical, ultra-comfortable dresses shaped vaguely like monks’ robes, moviegoers were watching Sister Act, and a record of traditional Gregorian chants was selling as well as rock and rap. In Dakota the nuns and monks are mentioned, but there’s more attention to phenology (in the shorter essays) and local social issues (in the longer essays reprinted from traditional magazines).

February 10 I walk downtown, wearing a good many of the clothes I own…so cold it hurts to breathe; dry enough to freeze spit…I begin to recall…‘Cold and chill, bless the Lord’.”

“We boast about our isolation…I drove two hundred miles just to hear William Stafford read his poetry, and…two hundred miles home again that same night.”

“With small towns shrinking and services eroding, many Dakotans retain an appalling innocence about what it means to be rural in contemporary America. The year we lost our J.C. Penney store, young people were quoted in the town’s weekly newspaper as saying they’d like to see a Mcdonald’s or a K-Mart open in its place.”

“I…heard a Lakota holy man say…‘Farmers are the next Indians, going through the same thing we did’.”

“High school students asked…to prepare a résumé for a mock job application replied: ‘Why? We’ll never live anyplace big enough to have to do this’.”

As these quotes suggest, Norris writes about the geography of the Dakotas, especially about Perkins County, S.D., but she writes at considerably greater length about their sociology. She spent her childhood mostly in Hawaii, then was educated and employed in New York. Perkins County seemed so different that she and Dwyer, who hadn’t even inherited land there, wound up staying on her grandparents’ old farm. Neither of them was much of a farmer; on the other hand neither was really a New Yorker, at heart. Introverts find it much easier to enjoy human interactions when our interactions are well separated. Norris found both Dakota people, and White people in the Dakotas, interesting.


By the end of Dakota she’s convinced me that her sense of topophilia is as intense as Wendell Berry’s or Terry Tempest Williams’. This is an author who could write about nuns in a way that made sane people think, for minutes on end, about being nuns. She writes that way about living in flat, sun-parched or blizzard-swept, sub-desert country, too. You wouldn’t really want to live there but you’re convinced that she really does.

All books by the living poet/essayist Kathleen Norris (as distinct from the long-gone novelist Kathleen (Thompson) Norris) are Fair Trade Books. When you buy them here, paying $5 for each older book or the even multiple of $5 above the publisher's price for each new book, plus $5 per package, plus $1 if you pay online, we send 10% of that total price per book to Norris (or any other living author) or a charity of her (his, their) choice. If you bought Dakota, Amazing Grace, The Cloister Walk, and probably Acedia and Me here, you'd send a U.S. postal order for $25 or Paypal payment of $26 to the address at the very bottom of the screen, and I'd send Norris or her charity $4.