Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris

dakotaContinuing in my series of not-new-but-still-important creative nonfiction readings (see The Kiss and The Liars’ Club)… Kathleen Norris’s essay collection, Dakota, is brilliant. I see somewhat where it is dated, discussing for example economic depression and agricultural crisis – because, if anything, things are worse now. But her astute ideas and conclusions are brilliant and in many ways timeless.

You saw my teaser earlier this week, so you know I am impressed. Norris, a poet, of course writes beautifully; it’s worth reading her words for their language alone. But I was really drawn in by the ideas behind them. As her subtitle notes, she is concerned with spirituality and geography. As you might have noted by now about me, I am not attracted to spiritual musings, but I was won over by the geography (in so many senses) and the sense of place which is at the heart of this collection. And I found myself on board for a certain amount of spirituality as well.

My favorite parts of the book were those that characterize place: the physical, biological, climactic characteristics that make “Dakota,” the unique region of both western North and South Dakota that Norris calls home, as well as the cultural and human characteristics of this scarcely populated area. I love thinking about and learning what is definitive about place, in both those senses: the natural, physical, extra-human as well as the human, and the idea of their interconnectedness. (Dakota would doubtless look a little different without people – Las Vegas certainly would – but there is no possibility, I think, of people without place.)

“The Holy Use of Gossip” taught me how gossip can be a good thing, or rather, taught me to recognize as “gossip” (originating, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, from God + sibling) the talking about each other we do in my close group of friends: when we share with each other that one of us is having a bad day, has suffered a loss, needs our help. This is well-intentioned and positive sharing that I’m glad we do. “Gatsby on the Plains” explores how community can lift its members up, or cut itself off from help: Norris writes that

…disconnecting from change does not recapture the past. It loses the future.

Intermittent “Weather Reports” read like short, poetic journal entries of real, specific days, in between more formal essays. They are often not strictly reports on the weather, unless we expand our definitions of weather, which we may well be intended to do.

She writes a good bit about community, how it is formed and how it can be both good and bad for itself. Norris came (back) to Dakota as an adult: her grandparents were of that place, and when she inherited their home there, she and her husband moved in. She is both from there (because the communities knew her grandparents) and not (because she grew up elsewhere, and came in as a traveled, educated, artistic outsider), which made for some interesting challenges for her and her new neighbors. Her 2001 introduction to this edition of the 1993 book discusses her adopted community’s reaction to her work, her publicization of Dakota: in a word, there was both pride and anxiety, but the fact that she stuck around eventually earned her a more thorough local membership.

On the subject of community, I am intrigued by her repeated conflation of the desert, the plains, and even the ocean that once covered this region, with the monastery. She spends quite a few pages throughout comparing the sense of quiet, of great distances increasing mutual support, and contrasting some of the ways in which these communities work. For example, I appreciated the idea (in “Where I Am” – naturally one of my favorite essays) that the monastery is different from small plains towns in that the former has a formal text or rulebook that they agree to live by: in the case of Norris’s central example, Saint Benedict’s Rule, which guides Benedictine monasteries. The small towns often find conflict because they are not all working from one central, agreed upon set of rules or values or ethics.

As an artist, Norris finds that she benefits immensely from the immensity of space in the plains. And she’s got some great stories to tell about sharing art and poetry with her new communities.

I find that prairie people are receptive to a broad range of contemporary poetry, although they’d be unlikely to cross town to attend a poetry reading at a college, were there a college in the vicinity. Their appreciation of the poems I’ve read aloud – from a broad spectrum of contemporary American poets – has given me a new understanding of the communal role of poets, a role poets have mostly abandoned by closeting themselves in academia. Surprises await poets who venture out into the larger community.

I love this idea, that poets (and by extension, many formally educated or academic folks) have quarantined themselves with those like them, and are both failing to share what they have and – more so – failing to learn from others, by locking the doors to the ivory tower.

In a strange counterpoint to this sentiment, though, I found Norris occasionally off-puttingly snobbish about the reading of books: that more prairie people should do it, that they shouldn’t consider themselves well-educated or wise without doing it. Now, don’t get me wrong: clearly I love reading books and find a great deal of value in doing so, and I think books have a lot to offer everyone and everyone should read more. But I also think that people can be very intelligent, wise, and valuable without formal reading; I think that the same prescriptions don’t work for all of us, and I think it’s a shame if she’s found (for example) a great oral storytelling tradition and then laments the lack of book reading. It makes her sound snotty in a way that the rest of the book does not. I like her better than this.

I think it’s just a moment of weakness or misstep, though, because in fact she returns to this subject with more sensitivity in “Status: Or, Should Farmers Read Plato?”

I know as well as anyone that a lot of book learning doesn’t make a person wise (sometimes it simply legitimizes stupidity), but I can’t help but connect the fact that so many Dakotans have been denied access to their culture with the fact that they don’t trust that their own stories are worth much.

The fact of their inhibited access to their own culture and stories is perhaps the best argument for lack of book-reading as a major problem. And she goes on to contemplate what difference it makes to a pig farmer to miss out on Plato, and what Tolstoy and the Brontes can bring to a small-town waitress. I like the nuanced discussion there.

Dakota gets more and more spiritual in its subject matter as it progresses, so that I struggled more toward the end. Discussion of monastic retreats, and Norris’s relationship with the religious communities of Dakota, were often interesting to me; they are in some ways further discussion of community ideals, and I am more or less on board with the spirituality of nature, of relating to wind and sky and plant life. But occasionally there was too much God for my personal tastes. When I encounter the idea of monasteries, and other writers’ productive experiences there, I have found myself tempted sometimes to consider the same; but then I realize what I really need is to just go camping alone.

I found a lot to love and a lot to continue to consider here: about place, about inheritance, about storytelling and relating to one another, about community and about definitions of spirituality. I love Norris’s writing. Although I struggled here and there, or perhaps because I did, this beautiful and thought-provoking book will stay with me and, I think, continue to guide me.

Rating: 8 readings.

Teaser Tuesdays: Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

dakotaWarning: rave review coming. Dakota is an amazing feat of essays exploring ethics, community, a sense of place and belonging and the meaning of home, geography, the unique features of the western Dakotas, and yes, spirituality (a subject usually sure to turn me away). This teaser post is just that, a preview of what I love about this book. For example,

The word ‘geography’ derives from the Greek words for earth and writing, and writing about Dakota has been my means of understanding that inheritance and reclaiming what is holy in it.

or, quoting Benedictine monk Terrence Kardong,

We have become as indigenous as the cottonwood trees… If you take us somewhere else, we lose our character, our history – maybe our soul.

I would love to share the entire 16 pages of “Where I Am,” which include the factoid that

the absolutely temperature range record for the Western Hemisphere [was] set in 1936 when a town in western North Dakota registered temperatures from 60 degrees below zero to 121 above within the same year.

or “Rain,” a single-page poetry-in-prose listing of the types of rain experienced there. Mind-blowing, right?

I am very impressed, and hope you’ll go looking for your copy of Dakota, too. My review is coming.

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin (audio)

go tell itI come away with the impression that this book had a large, sweeping scope. It is on the surface the story of John Grimes, and takes place in the present over the course of just a day or three, on and around his 14th birthday. His father Gabriel is a deacon in a black church in New York City in the 1950’s, and appears very pious, but beats his wife and children; as his sins add up from there, he comes clear as a hypocrite. The story begins and ends with John and focuses on his relationship with the church or with God; the first and last lines of the book are concerned with his eternal salvation. But in between, we ramble in space and time, and get to know Gabriel in his youth in the South; John’s mother Elizabeth in her youth in the South and in New York City; Gabriel’s sister Florence, who introduced him to Elizabeth; and a surprise character I’ll leave unnamed here. As such, although John is the focus that bookends all the action, this turns out really to be the story of a family and even of a shared experience. I was glad to have the background I gained by reading The Warmth of Other Suns, because like that work of nonfiction, Go Tell It on the Mountain is the story of black Americans moving north in the mid-20th century. It’s concerned with black society’s relationship with the church, and family patterns, and race relations. And it’s for these focuses that I call it “sweeping.”

John is a likeable character in that he feels like a real boy of that age, and my heart goes out to him for the challenges he faces: an overbearing and violent father with the significant authority of the black church in Harlem behind him is no small thing, and the question of his immortal soul and eternal salvation is weighty as well. Clearly I bypassed some of the weight of the religious question, not being able to sympathize with those parts, but I did appreciate the atmospheric nature of the church and the power of that institution in John’s society and in his family life.

Baldwin’s writing is undeniably lovely. I feel a little inadequate because I’m afraid I missed some of the depth of this story, mainly in the religious vein. But what I got, I appreciated, and part of that in this case meant just letting the language flow over me. The narration by Adam Lazarre-White is powerful, dynamic, and dramatic to the right extent; the phrasing feels accurately portrayed, and the cadence of the prayers is well executed and adds a lot to the feel of the story. Full marks for audio performance, and having such a fine narrator read such beautiful words was a grand experience.

Rating: 7 calls to the alter.

The Happy Atheist by PZ Myers

The creator of the popular Pharyngula blog makes a funny, impertinent and highly intelligent argument for atheism and happiness.


PZ Myers is serious and unapologetically funny at the same time–and, despite 15 churches in his immediate neighborhood and their fellows worldwide, he is indeed a happy atheist.

The Happy Atheist is irreverent in every sense of the word, experimentally seeking creative acts of sacrilege and poking fun at religion from diverse angles. Short chapters make for quick, easy reading: “The Great Desecration” relates Myers’s project of desecrating communion wafers, which inflamed the public to a degree that flabbergasted him.

He offers other reasons for the religious to be offended as he describes “the proper fate for a holy book” and instructs us to “take pride in the example of Eve–she is the author of a real promise of a great humanity.” But even in making fun–and he assures us that laughter is the greatest weapon we can wield against religion–Myers is loving and compassionate, and it is clear that he aims to increase everyone’s happiness by converting the wayward to atheism. Trusting in his expertise as a biology professor, he moves from more lighthearted larks toward a more serious scientific examination of the shortcomings of religion, especially by comparison. “Science,” he quotes Richard Feynman, “is what we do to keep from lying to ourselves.”

The Happy Atheist finishes with a heartfelt discussion of The Epic of Gilgamesh on a hopeful and inclusive note. Far from being out simply to insult, Myers genuinely wishes to improve humankind and our lot here on earth. But some hilarity along the way can’t hurt.

This review originally ran in the August 20, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 6 plain old crackers.

book beginnings on Friday: The Happy Atheist by PZ Myers

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.


I am pleased to be reading blogger PZ Myers’s new book, The Happy Atheist. It begins:

On any fine morning in rural Minnesota, I can step outside the door of my home and look a few blocks to the southwest and see the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A few blocks to the west, just out of sight behind nearby houses, lies the First Lutheran Church.

He goes on for several paragraphs naming churches, to the conclusion that in his town of 5,000 people, he has 15 churches to choose among (or not). Which immediately reminded me of an oft-cited Edward Abbey quotation, natually:

Page, Arizona, Shithead Capital of Coconino County: any town with thirteen churches and only four bars has got an incipient social problem. That town is looking for trouble.

(from A Voice Crying in the Wilderness.)

Myers doesn’t go that far – at least not in the opening paragraphs…

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

did not finish: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas (audio)

bonhoefferI’ve gotten better at putting down books I’m not enjoying. As I keep repeating to myself & others, there are far too many excellent books in this world for me to ever read them all, so why would I spend my precious, limited reading time on less-than-excellent books? But I guess I’m still working on applying this same policy to audiobooks. They are fewer, and a little harder to get my hands on, so I find myself taking more chances with audiobooks. But somewhere between a third and halfway through Bonhoeffer, I gave up.

This is the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who lost a brother in World War I and was more prescient than many during Hitler’s rise to power. He was already involved in “the church,” but as Hitler’s government worked to take over the German church establishment, Bonhoeffer became even more active. I didn’t get this far, but apparently he also acted as a spy (for the anti-Nazi Abwehr), and was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler.

As a non-Christian, I thought I would be able to appreciate this as a work of history and biography. But I found myself too much irked by the unspoken premises: that Bonhoeffer, as a good Christian, was a good guy; that he could do no wrong; that the Christian church was inherently good. Christian readers of this book (who I can only assume are the majority, and its target audience) will naturally not be offended by these assumptions; but I am bothered by premises being treated as fact. Bonhoeffer comes off as a good and likeable man, and I may even miss him; but he’s presented as a totally good man, and I just can’t buy that about any human being. In other words, I don’t think Metaxas treats him objectively, and that tends to bother me a great deal in my reading. The religious bias, combined with copious quotations from the Bible, proved too much for me. In a shorter book, I would have hung in there: I made it 8-10 hours into its 22 hours! But I could go no farther.

I am happy to accept that Bonhoeffer was, on balance, a force for good against Hitler’s evil; but in a lengthy biography I would expect a little more objectivity, and would prefer a nonreligious starting point for study. I found his life interesting and would read another book about him. But not this one.

Rating: 2 sermons.

The Scroll by Grant R. Jeffrey

A fast-paced Christian-fiction-thriller involving international intrigue, archeology, and one man’s struggle with his own faith.

Dr. David Chambers is a world-class celebrity archeologist who has always specialized in scientific support for the Bible. But a crisis of faith has left him bitter, split from his former fiancĂ©, Amber, and seeking a new area of study. So when an old friend and mentor requests his help on a new project, he wants to turn away; but a final expedition in biblical archeology is more than he can resist. This new project will make all his past accomplishments pale: there is unimaginable treasure to be found, and even more importantly, temple artifacts thrilling and useful to those who still believe. Surrounded by colleagues, professional rivals, estranged old friends, and Amber herself, David undertakes one final assignment in Jerusalem. The question of the Bible as historical fact is at risk, as are all David’s most valued relationships, including that with his God.

But then unknown forces come into play in a series of violent attacks, and it becomes clear that there is more at stake than David’s personal life and religion. The dig becomes an undertaking of international significance, with the world’s Muslim and Jewish powers struggling for control. Will David find the answers? Regain his faith? Will he survive this mission?

Jeffrey & Gansky have created an engrossing thriller that offers notes of interest in the field of archeology and special focus on love and relationships, and most importantly, relationships with God. If you can overlook that Muslims are generally depicted in a less-than-favorable light, this is a page-turner.

I wrote this review for Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Further feedback: I am not a fan of Christian fiction, mostly because I’m not a Christian. Most of the genre seems to require that of its readers, for fine writing, perfectly wrought plots, literary triumphs in general are rare; generally what Christian fiction seems to have to offer is a comforting reassurance of faith. The Scroll was somewhat unique in being a page-turning mystery, and I found it more palatable than those saccharine Christian romance novels. But there were still some strains on my credibility and most damning of all (no pun intended) was the unsympathetic treatment of the main Muslim character. That was just too obvious, easy, and stereotyped; no points given.

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