Dakota: A Spiritual Geography

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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 ...

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Deeply moving." The New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A native of South Dakota, Norris maps the cultural and spiritual landscape of life on the High Plains. (Sept.)
Library Journal
The Dakotas, while thought to be God's country by some, are considered a forgotten land by others. With imagistic flair, poet Norris ( The Year of Common Things , Wayland Pr., 1988) brings alive the history and spirit of the area and its inhabitants. She writes that residing in a small town like Lemmon, North Dakota, can be both a burden and a blessing, giving us insight into her life there by sharing recollections and observations. Norris effectively transports readers into this world by describing her journey of self-discovery and spirituality. Hers is a very personal story, yet it is both philosophical and entertaining. Norris reminds us that beauty and a sense of belonging are only limited by an individual's perception. Recommended for most travel collections. Norris is an LJ reviewer.--Ed.-- Jo-Anne Mary Benson, Osgoode, Ontario
Verlyn Klinkenborg
[A] remarkable new book of nonfiction…[A] deeply spiritual, deeply moving book…an endlessly instructive book.
New York Times Book Review
Lyndon Johnson
The great poems will never be quite the same after Dakota: A Spiritual Geography…with humor and lyrical grace, [Morris is] at once a pondering visionary and a news reporter covering the essence of what there is to see and touch in a land so vast that it seems more like an ocean…
San Francisco Chronicle
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618127245
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 4/28/2001
  • Edition description: 1ST MARINE
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 138,223
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet 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.

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Read an Excerpt


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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”

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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
“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 what I had written and those who just as passionately loved it. I received some anonymous letters telling me that if I didn’t like South Dakota, I should leave. I was particularly moved by a letter I received from a small-town retailer who thanked me for expressing many things he had felt but could not say if he hoped to keep his Main Street business. I realized that with “Gatsby” I had struck a nerve.

The contradictions that first inspired me to write Dakota are still very much in evidence. We assure ourselves, for example, that cities are far less desirable than our quiet rural area. It’s a great luxury, after all, not to have to lock one’s doors. But when I read the response of a councilman to the application of a policeman from suburban Los Angeles for a job in his West River town—“If he’s so well qualified, why does he want to come here?”—it makes me wonder. Does the bravado of small-town boosterism mask an underlying sense of inferiority? Having been told for so long that we are insignificant, have we come to believe it? We suspect, sometimes with good reason, that we are a dumping ground for those who can’t make it elsewhere, and it doesn’t help our morale to hear an urban bank executive, telling tales out of school, say of a small-town branch manager: “He’s as dumb as a post. It’s no accident that we sent him there.” Memories are long in the western Dakotas. Maybe it’s the winters, which give people time to brood, people who bear the pain of living in a harsh, unforgiving climate where so many human institutions—schools, churches, businesses, ranches—spring up only to wither on the vine. Hurts linger. One local woman objected to my description of my grandmother, during the 1920s, making clothes for my mother out of flour sacks. Her mother never wore flour sacks! the woman indignantly told a mutual friend, refusing to believe that my mother’s underclothes were made of flour sacks for years. As a doctor’s daughter, a privileged only child in the days when many rural families had ten or more children and hand-me-down clothes, including flour-sack dresses, were the norm, my mother had been the envy of other girls. Seven decades later, in our happy little town, the memory still rankles.
Yet rural South Dakotans have considerable inner strength, which does not come from the status symbols that have grown to dominate American culture. A friend in New York City laments that five-year-olds are demanding designer clothing, and I read that in Miami, eleven- and twelve-year-olds are paying $200 for Kate Spade sandals, while teenagers pay much more for anything from Prada. In the area where I live, many teens must accept that thrift shop clothes are all their families can afford. Their clothes, shoes, and automobiles (more likely pickup trucks) are utilitarian rather than trendy. An outfit from Prada would be totally wasted, and if people found out how much you had paid for it, you would never live it down.
The western Dakotas feel like America’s shadow side, where the economy is not booming but in free fall and rural people have been rendered invisible in a media-driven celebrity culture. In the past twenty-seven years I have witnessed only one television show that depicted the lives of people like those I know: the Frontline programs entitled “The Farmer’s Wife.” The miniseries concerns a Nebraska family pushed to the brink by the calamity of the contemporary farm economy, in which the “crisis” of the 1980s has become everyday reality and farmers contend with paying 1990s expenses while receiving prices for their commodities at 1940s levels. In both North and South Dakota, which limit corporate farming, family farm income has fallen severely in recent years. From 1996 to 1998 in North Dakota, the average income per farm went from $33,000 to $24,000. In South Dakota, net farm income dropped 28 percent between 1996 and 1997, and a similar decrease is expected for subsequent years.
In human terms, these figures mean that farmers are being penalized for growing the food Americans eat, and like rural people worldwide, they often decide that their only option is to crowd around large cities and take whatever jobs are available, in manufacturing or the service industry. Yet, despite it all, many hold on in the western Dakotas, toiling long hours for so little because they want to raise their children in the country. They want to work the land. And they have the resilience of a people whose religion is a bulwark in hard times. Commenting on her family’s recent bad harvest, one friend said, “This is a year when you have to be thankful for what you have, not what you don’t have.” This sounds a countercultural note, even in the Dakotas, where more than half of each state’s population now lives in a relatively urban corridor along the eastern border, centered on Fargo and Sioux Falls. I found it revealing that, when a pastor and several teenagers from a Sioux Falls church stayed for a week with a Hope Church family on a Corson County ranch, the young people, on returning home, could not stop talking about how their trip was like a visit to another country. They were stunned to have found such cultural differences within their own state, among people they had assumed would be much like them. Their shock had little to do with race—some of the ranchers they met were white, some were Indian—and everything to do with having discovered a rural way of life that had previously been unknown to them.
I only hope that these young people keep talking about it, and that when Hope sends some of its youth to the Sioux Falls church, they will learn more about the newest South Dakotans—Christian refugees from Somalia and Sudan, immigrants from Mexico and Korea, Hindu and Muslim physicians, families with cultures and traditions very different from any they know. As we embrace a new century, we will need all the goodwill that we can muster in order to better understand each other in a more diverse and potentially more divided state. People who hang on in the Dakotas tend to have good reason for doing so. They wouldn’t want to be anyplace else. It is here that they live and die and fall in and out of love, and that is the stuff of drama and literature. We have only to value it and tell it.

January 2001

Introduction copyright © 2001 by Kathleen Norris. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Table of Contents

CONTENTS ix Preface 1 The Beautiful Places 13 Weather Report: January 17 14 Deserts 25 Weather Report: February 10 26 Dakota: Or, Gambling, Garbage, and the New Ghost Dance 39 Patagonia 42 A Starfish in Mott 44 Weather Report: March 25 45 Gatsby on the Plains 65 Weather Report: April 14 66 Closed In 69 The Holy Use of Gossip 78 Weather Report: May 19 79 Can You Tell the Truth in a Small Town?
89 Weather Report: June 30 90 Ghosts: A History 102 Evidence of Failure 104 Shadows ‘n’ Owls: A Message from Jim Sullivan 105 Cana 107 Where I Am•124 Star-Time 126 Frontier 135 How I Came to Drink My Grandmother’s Piano 136 Status: Or, Should Farmers Read Plato?
142 Weather Report: July 3 143 Rain 145 Sea Change 154 God Is in the Details: Shortgrass 155 Seeing 159 Weather Report: August 9 160 Getting to Hope 177 In the Open 180 Blessing 182 Weather Report: September 3 183 My Monasticism 188 God Is in the Details: Winter Wheat 189 Weather Report: October 2 191 Is It You, Again?
204 Weather Report: November 2 205 Dust 207 Monks at Play 218 Blue 219 Weather Report: December 4 220 Weather Report: December 7 221 Acknowledgments 223 Notes 227 Reader’s Guide 231 A Conversation with Kathleen Norris

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 16, 2006

    Confluence of Matter and Spirit

    As I write this, a winter storm assails Dakota. Cold air conspires with warm, spawning snow. Below-zero (Fahrenheit) weather will follow. The wood stove offloads the burden from the utility company. Stew meat and veggies simmer in the crockpot. I will eat them before first light. When you read *Dakota: A Spiritual Geography*, you will discover that the Black Hills where I live, along with the rest of Dakota, are regarded by some people as ideal territory for discarding industrial waste. One can speculate about human activity tonight in these rugged mountains, and on the prairies below them, as frigid winds groan around buttes and hiss through trees. Certainly, other people out there besides me will have good breakfasts in the morning. Do they imagine that they live in a national dump? Snowbirds pay upwards of a quarter-million U.S. dollars for studio condos in Miami Beach. Some of those buildings harbor more bodies than the average town in West River (the land between the Missouri River and the Wyoming/Montana state lines). Some night a summer storm will rip through Miami Beach, but it will be of a different sort than anything Dakota knows, and the people hunkering down in those condos won't have beef stew for breakfast the next day. For them, theirs. For us, ours. People cruise through Dakota at hurricane speed to minimize their presence in this Euclidean continuum, blind to the intangibles that Kathleen Norris reveals in her book, oblivious to sky and earth that define time-space with mathematical rigor. She has convinced me that in choosing this place, after having dwelt in sexier zones such as Florida, California, and Hawaii, I did not put myself up as a candidate for an insane asylum (a monastery, maybe, although the life of a serious writer, like that of a farmer or rancher, demands monastic discipline in order to stay out of bankruptcy). In *Dakota: A Spiritual Geography*, the author combines religion, politics, sociology, and physical science in a confluence without conflict, just as tonight's snowstorm is not a malevolent clash of air masses but a good reason to have a big breakfast. This land is not for many folks. The only way to appreciate this book, and this place, is to maintain an open mind and make sure the stove burns hot. This is the sort of book you can read over and over, and get something new out of it every time. Highly recommended.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 20, 2010

    Profoundly thoughtful; thoughtfully gentle.

    Taking us into her world may help us find our own. The author's existence in the stark plains of the Dakotas reconnects the spirituality of her environments; those external to those internal. We who live in today's sprawling, manic metropolitan areas often forfeit our soul's connection to the restful and inspirational majesty of nature and the intimacy of personal relations in her shadows. This book goes a long way to inspire us to open our eyes and hearts to a deep examination of how we spend our days.

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  • Posted August 9, 2009

    Going home

    Kathleen Norris description of returning to the small town where her grandparents had lived captures the universality of returning home after having explored the larger world. It is more about the internal journey than the physical journey. I often return to this book, as well as others by Norris, for spiritual nourishment. Norris does not sugar coat but she expresses the value in everyday life.

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    Posted June 3, 2010

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    Posted September 14, 2010

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    Posted May 15, 2014

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    Posted March 20, 2014

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