Portable Prairie: Confessions of an Unsettled Midwesterner

Overview

For fans of Russell Baker and Garrison Keillor, M.J. Andersen's memoir of growing up in and leaving South Dakota is a heartfelt look at our lifelong quest to recover "home" in all its forms. Through her moving narrative, she introduces us to her hardworking newspaper family, the order of Job's Daughters (founded to prepare young women for adversity), Princeton in the 70s, her early days as an aspiring writer, and the unexpected richness of single life. Ultimately she shows how the world beyond home demands our ...
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Portable Prairie: Confessions of an Unsettled Midwesterner

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Overview

For fans of Russell Baker and Garrison Keillor, M.J. Andersen's memoir of growing up in and leaving South Dakota is a heartfelt look at our lifelong quest to recover "home" in all its forms. Through her moving narrative, she introduces us to her hardworking newspaper family, the order of Job's Daughters (founded to prepare young women for adversity), Princeton in the 70s, her early days as an aspiring writer, and the unexpected richness of single life. Ultimately she shows how the world beyond home demands our presence, however veiled its purposes. Andersen's storytelling is at once emotional and intelligent, funny and bittersweet.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Before even mentioning her Midwestern roots in the first chapter of this memoir, Andersen compares the events in Anna Karenina to a train-related suicide in her current Massachusetts hometown, musing on Tolstoy's love/hate relationship with his family estate, and his religious conversion, flight from home and subsequent death at a train station. These themes-home, trains, exile, Christianity-run throughout Andersen's book, and the author, a journalist from a family of newspaper people, skillfully unites them with a voice both vulnerably personal and insightfully far-ranging. In vivid recollections of childhood (which could stand on their own), she recalls the security and smugness of living in a tiny farm town "too far away" for anything to happen; her parents' struggles running a smalltown newspaper; the wonder of rising in the cold of night to catch the train to Minneapolis for Christmas shopping; the Midwestern determination of a local horticulturist to travel the world to find plants that could survive South Dakota's extreme climate; and Andersen's odyssey through crowded, cropless Northeastern regions. Although occasionally indulging in heartland-centric generalizations ("the Midwest has long been the imaginary home of all Americans"), this is an enlightening, moving rhapsody on the spirit of place and the meaning of home. (Jan.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Genial and sometimes lyrical memoir of a South Dakota girlhood and an East Coast adolescence and adulthood-with Tolstoy and Anna Karenina serving as signposts along the way. Andersen (editorial writer for the Providence Journal) has no grand or pretentious ambitions, despite the continual Tolstoy allusions, despite her references to other intellectual heavyweights like Sartre, Proust, Matthew Arnold, Keats and Kierkegaard. (To show her populist passions she also mentions Doris Day, Nancy Sinatra, June Cleaver, The Rifleman, Roy Rogers and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) Instead, she looks for significance in the mundane, explores the loneliness of a prairie childhood, wonders at the allure of place, and marvels at coincidence and fate. She tells about her childhood in a town she calls "Plainville," describing the old family home, her experiences at church camp, her Barbie collection, her favorite TV show (Fury), her memories of the JFK assassination and of the Watts riots. She did well in high school-very well-and headed off to Princeton, where she met an odd young man with a mole (she calls him "The Mole," seemingly unaware of comedian Mike Myers's m-m-m-mole-moments in Austin Powers in Goldmember, 2002-there go her pop-culture credentials!). Following Princeton, she migrated to Cambridge, Mass., and worked as a secretary at Harvard Law before finding herself in journalism, the family profession (her parents ran a weekly back in South Dakota). Andersen takes us many places-Scandinavia and Jerusalem, among the more exotic-and writes eloquently about how her new home in the East is both lovely and inadequate (it's not South Dakota). Most effectively, she relates the stark arrival of MS in hermother's life. In a spare, perfect sentence, she captures it: "She has gone off somewhere, become Job." She ends with a surreal account of the death of a young woman on train tracks near her home-a final Anna allusion. A quiet meditation on the great significance of small things.
From the Publisher
"When you come to the end of [Portable Prairie], you'll feel that you grew up here on the prairie. Or if you did grow up here, you'll get teary-eyed, as I did. I bow to this young writer and kiss her hand. Bravo. Tolstoy would be proud."

- Garrison Keillor

"MJ Andersen's memoir brings to life a kind of small-town America that is our national dream, even as it meditates on the endless disavowing of home that is our national lot. Spare, witty, poignant, brave and never sentimental, it's a book you can dive into and find yourself."

- Elizabeth Kendall, author of American Daughter and The Runaway Bride

"Portable Prairie is an uncommon memoir, a luminous account of one woman's intellectual flowering in the Plains States and beyond, and a deeply moving and intelligent meditation on the essential human experience of home. Andersen writes about places, people, objects, and ideas and reveals how hopelessly and beautifully they are bound together. This is not a confessional book, and those details she selects (and what a treasure they are) are precisely the sort which stimulate in us our own poignant recollections. This is the sort of book one presses on friends and interesting strangers. This is the American story made fresh."

- Jincy Willett, author of Winner of the National Book Award

"M.J. Andersen's memoir, Portable Prairie, unfurls in a finished tone-straightforward, uncluttered, headlong, with a wry smile-in its contemplation on the meaning of "home" worthy of Bachelard. The identifying trait of this memoir among others is its ability to lift you into a sudden dimensional moment-where was I? you wonder-then set you back inside the pacing of its gentle, assured voice. Andersen is a visionary of the lives lived in the realm we too often self-confidently call home. Andersen causes us to readjust our focus, as Willa Cather and Wright Morris do."

- Larry Woiwode, author of What I Think I Did

Garrison Keillor

When you come to the end of [Portable Prairie], you'll feel that you grew up here on the prairie. Or if you did grow up here, you'll get teary-eyed, as I did. I bow to this young writer and kiss her hand. Bravo. Tolstoy would be proud.
Elizabeth Kendall

MJ Andersen's memoir brings to life a kind of small-town America that is our national dream, even as it meditates on the endless disavowing of home that is our national lot. Spare, witty, poignant, brave and never sentimental, it's a book you can dive into and find yourself.
Jincy Willett

Portable Prairie is an uncommon memoir, a luminous account of one woman's intellectual flowering in the Plains States and beyond, and a deeply moving and intelligent meditation on the essential human experience of home. Andersen writes about places, people, objects, and ideas and reveals how hopelessly and beautifully they are bound together. This is not a confessional book, and those details she selects (and what a treasure they are) are precisely the sort which stimulate in us our own poignant recollections. This is the sort of book one presses on friends and interesting strangers. This is the American story made fresh.
Larry Woiwode

M.J. Andersen's memoir, Portable Prairie, unfurls in a finished tone-straightforward, uncluttered, headlong, with a wry smile-in its contemplation on the meaning of "home" worthy of Bachelard. The identifying trait of this memoir among others is its ability to lift you into a sudden dimensional moment-where was I? you wonder-then set you back inside the pacing of its gentle, assured voice. Andersen is a visionary of the lives lived in the realm we too often self-confidently call home. Andersen causes us to readjust our focus, as Willa Cather and Wright Morris do.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312712235
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2005
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 289

Meet the Author

M.J. Andersen grew up in South Dakota and now lives in Massachusetts with her husband. She is a graduate of Princeton University and holds a master's degree from Brown University. A recent fellow in the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University, she writes for the editorial pages of the Providence Journal.

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Table of Contents

Preface ix
Astapovo Station 1
Sixth Street 29
Regine 53
Dutch Colonial 63
On the Range 83
The Bethel 113
Oz 127
Northeast Corridor 155
Royal Copenhagen 185
Jerusalem 201
The Shore of Lake Michigan 219
Yasnaya Polyana 235
Acknowledgments 243
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Reading Group Guide

1. The author's quest for home revolves around her childhood landscape. How important is landscape to a sense of home?

2. What is the significance of the stained glass window? Why does the author resist installing it in her new home?

3. By taking on the harsh conditions in the Dakotas, the agriculturalist Niels Hansen helped shape the region's identity. How much does the author's sense of self derive from this identity? In what other ways do Americans define themselves?

4. Throughout the book, horses are emblems of imaginative power. What does it mean when the author thinks she can no longer hear her toy horses whinnying from their shoebox? Does anything take their place later on?

5. A trip to California plunges the author's family into a watershed historical moment, the Watts riots of 1965. Do children generally dwell outside history? How and when does the author's historical consciousness dawn?

6. In Denmark, the author feels a sense of belonging. Yet she is wary of identifying too strongly with the group. Why?

7. Plainville gives the author a sense of community that eludes her in Eastboro. Are newcomers to a community destined to remain outsiders?

8. Roy Rogers is among the book's important male characters. How do the male personalities compare with its female personalities? How does sexual identity affect the author's feelings of being at home in the world?

9. Tolstoy's search for meaning becomes intensely bound up in Christianity. How does the author's quest diverge from his? What part does belief play in her idea of home?

10. How has the author's idea of home changed by the end of the book?

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 24, 2005

    Excellent reading!

    This is a book to savor. Each and every word is choice, an amazement. I didn't want to finish.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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