Dakota: A Spiritual Geography

by Kathleen Norris

"A book of stories, a book of prayer, a book to be read meditatively and well," DAKOTA offers a timeless tribute to a place in the American landscape that is at once desolate and sublime, harsh and forgiving, steeped in history and myth. From the award-winning author of AMAZING GRACE, DAKOTA is Kathleen Norris at her most thoughtful, her most discerning, her best. She gives us, once again, a rare "gift of hope and balance, a place to begin" (Chicago Tribune) and assurance that wherever we go, we chart our own spiritual geography.

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9780618127245
  • ISBN-10: 0618127240
  • Pages: 256
  • Publication Date: 04/06/2001
  • Carton Quantity: 48

About the book

A beautiful meditation on life in the Great Plains from award-winning author and poet Kathleen Norris.


Kathleen Norris invites readers to experience rich moments of prayer and presence in Dakota, a timeless tribute to a place in the American landscape that is at once desolate and sublime, harsh and forgiving, steeped in history and myth. In thoughtful, discerning prose, she explores how we come to inhabit the world we see, and how that world also inhabits us. Her voice is a steady assurance that we can, and do, chart our spiritual geography wherever we go.

About the author
Kathleen Norris

Kathleen Norris is the author of two books of poetry, Falling Off (1971) and The Middle of the World (1981) and has received awards from the Guggenheim and Bush foundations. She lives in Lemmon, South Dakota, with her husband.


<div>PREFACE<br><br>Dakota is everywhere, at least in diaspora. In January of 1993, when I first began traveling across the country to talk about Dakota, a woman from a San Francisco suburb told me that her mother had graduated from Lemmon High School in the 1950s. In New York City, a man showed me a photograph of the old Lemmon railroad station taken not long after it was built. His great-grandfather had helped lay the track to Lemmon in 1907, when the town was founded, and stayed for more than ten years.<br>In Minneapolis, a woman said that in the late 1960s her grandparents had lost their farm to the Oahe Dam. “It killed them,” she added solemnly. “It took the spirit right out of them.” In Chicago, a Lakota man asked me if I knew anything about the Catholic boarding school his father had attended. In Portland, a woman said she hoped the book would inspire her mother to talk about her upbringing on a homestead ranch near Kadoka. “She doesn’t think her story has any value,” the woman explained, “and much of it is so painful she doesn’t want to revisit it. But I need to know about my family’s past.” In Seattle, a show of hands revealed that nearly half my audience had roots in the Dakotas.<br>These people and their stories point to a dilemma: the Dakotas are a place people are from, a place that has suffered a steady outmigration for the better part of a hundred years. What does this do to those of us who remain? Although I explored that question in Dakota, I don’t pretend to have any answers. I did discover that many former Dakotans felt that my book reaffirms their sense of being glad to have escaped, while others found, especially in the descriptions of the Plains’ physical beauty, a reminder of the place they were forced to leave for economic reasons, but dream of returning to one day.<br>And I’ve received letters from people who feel that I’ve somehow described their own “small town.” A high school English teacher in New Jersey reported that what I’d said about gossip, provincialism, and fear of change captured the atmosphere at her school. I got similar letters from university professors and corporate executives. I was stunned by the variety of people the book had touched. A Mexican American priest wrote to say that Dakota had helped him to understand the older generation in his Los Angeles parish, mostly German Americans who had fled during the economic depression that first hit the Dakotas in the 1920s and intensified in the 1930s. The Methodist bishop in Fargo began giving copies of the book to all new clergy coming into North Dakota. Several people wrote to ask why I didn’t write more about the Indian population of the Dakotas. I felt that many fine Indian writers —Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Louise Erdrich, Adrian Louis, Susan Power, David Seals —were already doing that, and I needed to describe the Dakotas of my own experience. I wanted the book to be a portrait of a place, the kind of small Dakota town that has had little written about it by those who live there.<br>The question about Dakota I have been asked most often is “How have the people back home responded to the book?” That was something that had concerned me, and I am relieved that things have gone far better than I could have imagined. The book is now available at the Chamber of Commerce gift shop, the local newspaper, and Lemmon’s two museums. People have told me that when they wear a name tag at business conventions out of state, bearing the name of Lemmon, South Dakota, strangers no longer say, “Where in the world is that?”<br><br>The story of how Dakota first fared in Lemmon makes a nice addendum to some of the book’s observations of small-town mores. I hadn’t talked much about Dakota while I was writing it, except when I asked two ranch families to read the manuscript and help me catch mistakes. But when reviews from out-of-state newspapers started arriving, sent by relatives and friends around the country, the local gossip mill went into high gear. My friend Alice called in a panic, asking what in the world I had done. She told me she’d gone to a coffee party where she’d heard that I had told a number of scandalous stories, naming names, putting people on the spot. When she asked if anyone had read the book, no one had. They had just heard bad things about it. And they were upset.<br>As residents of my town began to read the book, they calmed down. I had not “named names,” and people were relieved to find that I had tried to give a balanced perspective, describing the joys of rural and small- town life as well as its less attractive aspects. When I was asked to preach again in my home church, I sensed that all was forgiven. And I passed the ultimate test: I did not move away once the book was < successful. That is what many had exxxxpected. That would have been the usual thing.<br>Now, when I am asked about tthe local reaction to my book, I describe it as a mixture of wariiness and pride. Dakotans at first seemed divided between those who delighted in my description of small towns, warts and all, and those who were alarmed that I had written about South Dakota in the first place. What if people read your book, one woman asked, and think we’re all a bunch of hicks? What if all their negative stereotypes of the state are simply reinforced?<br>The question reflects the honest skepticism of people whose state is either ignored or disdained in the national media. My roots in South Dakota go back three generations, and I have now lived here for half of my life. I suspect I will always feel compelled to write about the place, and for good or ill, I am especially engaged by the contradictions I find here. In fact, I began this book because of them. In 1984, when I saw a notice placed by the North Dakota Quarterly calling for articles about the myths that help small Great Plains towns to survive, I had been brooding about the self-defeating myths that contribute to their demise.<br>People will confidently tell you, for example, that their small town is a haven where “nothing ever changes.” In 1920, Lemmon supported eight lumberyards. Now there are two. Six banks, now three. Five hotels, now two. Ten general stores, now four. Since 1970, school enrollment has dropped by a third, and one Lemmon store estimates that its customer base has dropped 46 percent. Its volume of business has dropped by one half. This slow but steady attrition is not often acknowledged as a form of social upheaval. But it contributes to the malaise I describe in “Gatsby on the Plains,” which was written at a time when a collapsing farm economy was fast eroding the complacency of the inhabitants of my region.<br>“Gatsby” was published in the North Dakota Quarterly in 1985 and caught the attention of an editor at Houghton Mifflin, who wrote to say that the description of my small town reminded her of her hometown in New Hampshire. She wondered if I had a book. At the time I was working six part-time jobs and barely had the glimmer of an idea for a book. It was another five years before I presented a proposal to her, buttressed by several other essays that I had published about the region. In the meantime, the “Gatsby” essay had attracted interest in the Dakotas, primarily among clergy, who began using it to stimulate discussion in their congregations about the effects of the farm crisis. Pastors told me that the groups were divided between those who passionately hated


"Deeply moving." The New York Times