Author's love for father is at emotional heart of book
By Beth Kephart
Marquart, Debra. The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere. New York: Counterpoint Press, 2006.
Born and bred in a "small North Dakota town east of the Missouri
Debra Marquart was the youngest daughter of a farmer-father--a pretty
blond with a fine singing voice and a genius for rebellion.
Even as a girl, she knew she wanted out of a place that offered
more than "[t]hree blistering months of summer packed between
months of winter." She knew she despised her chores, pitied
captivity of farmers' wives, wanted not to be what she was supposed
be--a guardian of a swath of land passed down through generations.
studied TV shows and consulted maps with a fevered determination
leave. She smoked her cigarettes and went off with boys to do the
things that proved her independence. She had a talent, she writes
new book, "The Horizontal World," for metaphor--"[t]his
habit of drawing
equations between unlikely objects."
"The Horizontal World" is a collection of essays, of
memories shaped over
time. It is a book of reflection on a place that few of us will
know--a repository of richly limned anecdotes about the separation
calves from their mothers, chickens' heads from their necks, town
from farm girls, brothers from sisters and dreams from reality.
ability to place us there, with her, in that desolate, surprising,
defeating, liberating, pitiable, gorgeous world is her great talent.
decision to focus on the crafting of each individual essay, as opposed
the creation of a cohering, narrative whole, makes for a book in
exquisite phrasing and insights bump up against occasional repetitions
biographical fact (we're frequently reminded throughout, for example,
Marquart had a career as a rock star), not to mention jarring shifts
Marquart reaches her most effective emotional heights when she
about her father, a man who loved to sing and was physically fragile,
who nonetheless took on the shackled life of a farmer. He was a
storyteller who steered clear of intimate moments. He had his kids
trucks and dangerous machinery before their feet could even reach
When the author drops out of college to tour with a leather-clad
band, her father can hardly hide his disdain for the choices she
Marquart is not at her father's side when he dies, though at the
where he lay ill she had promised him that she'd return. She barely
it home in time for his funeral. She doesn't get to say to him,
end, "Dad, I do love you."
And yet, the love of this daughter for her father is unmistakable--the
book's clearest through-line, its most wrenching, prevailing emotion.
Maybe, we come to understand, Marquart needs to leave her father
she's too much like him. Maybe she doesn't give herself enough time
to the funeral not out of selfishness or poor planning, but out
desire to keep her cherished memories alive:
"I thought of my father's body dressed in a blue suit, lying
the horizon inside a steel blue coffin lined with satin. I didn't
see his hands held together in eternal prayer, a black rosary wound
his fingers. I didn't want to shake the thin, sympathetic hand of
undertaker or admire the sheaf of wheat bound with a blue ribbon
placed inside his coffin. . . . I wanted to remember those hands
a deck of cards, dealing ten to me, ten to him, picking up spares
slapping down discards. . . ."
Marquart has published poetry as well as a collection of lyrical
and her mastery of the single sentence is superb. One hears the
her, the woman who has spent a lifetime holding notes high, or cutting
them, dramatically, short. One can imagine passages of the book
But Marquart's artistry can devolve into gimmickry, and sometimes
connections between her purported themes and anecdotes run dangerously
thin. I found the chapter "The Horizontal Life" to be
difficult. Announcing itself as a piece about Marquart's early sexual
exploits, this essay, written in an odd third person, feels more
literary exercise than an honest reckoning. The insights don't quite
earned, and the writing is coy--strutting and proud in places, eliding
tedious in others, as in this somewhat fumbling passage:
"The grain elevator burning down will prove to be a symbolic
event in her
life, not that the girl that I was would have perceived it as such,
she had never heard of symbols and will not hear about symbolism
good many years--long after she had ceased to be herself and was
her way to becoming someone else who would, by some strange twist
Such passages notwithstanding, Marquart regains her power over
ensuing chapters. In the book's strongest essay, "Signs and
effectively combines the discovery that a river has been
flowing--mysteriously, unheralded--beneath her hometown for years
deeply touching final sequence on her father's life and death. Here
Marquart keeps her themes close, her story purposeful. She weaves
that holds. She finds vestiges of her father in dimes, and on the
of a student's baseball cap. She hears him speak in a dream. She
confession to make, and she makes it. "Signs and Wonders"
is Marquart at
her best--her language musical, her heart open, her faith in forgiveness
ripe and real.