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The Horizontal World: Growing Up in the Middle of Nowhere

Review by Julia Scheeres

Marquart, Debra. The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere. New York: Counterpoint Press, 2006.


Most farmers daughter jokes involve a cloistered nymphet and a traveling salesman whose car has broken down in the middle of nowhere. The jokes always end poorly for the salesman usually in castration or a shotgun wedding the toll exacted on city slickers who dare meddle with country folk and their crude, anachronistic ways. But in Debra Marquarts elegiac memoir, The Horizontal World, the punch line belongs to the cloistered daughter.

Courtesy of Debra Kay Marquart Debra Marquart (on horse with a neighbor boy) and her brother and sister, summer 1960. Her familys farmhouse is visible at left.

Debra Marquart (on horse with a neighbor boy) and her brother and sister, summer 1960. Her family’s farmhouse is visible at left.

Born into an agricultural family in North Dakota, Marquart managed to escape the farm for a peripatetic career as a rock musician, poet and English teacher. But the price of abandoning her roots was high: a strained relationship with her parents still unresolved at the time of her fathers death.

Grow Where Youre Planted, read a poster Marquart taped to her bedroom wall as a teenager in the 1960s. It pictured a daisy with a crooked stalk growing from a square pot. Yet from an early age, she realized she had no desire to conform to a place where the only prospects for women were teacher, housewife, nun.

While other teenagers in Napoleon (population 1,107) quelled their boredom by cruising the three blocks of Main Street or throwing clandestine keg parties in the moraines surrounding the wheat fields, Marquarts restless streak tugged much harder.

The youngest and wildest of five children, Marquart wasnt alone in snubbing the hard-won legacy of her great-grandfather, who immigrated from Russia to the Dakota Territory in 1885 to tame a 25-by-25-mile chunk of grassland. Her father relocated the family to Bismarck, where he found work as an appliance salesman. But when each of his brothers tried and failed to take over the farm, he announced to his wife that they were moving back, leading to the worst fight of their married lives.

Marquarts brother, the sole male heir, bought a gas station in another town before succumbing to his fathers entreaties to return to the ancestral acreage. Farm inheritance is patrilineal, but daughters are expected to grow where theyre planted as helpmates, a role Marquart rejected. She took her cues instead from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, fantasizing about life in the big city.

Indeed, so many farmers daughters have left North Dakota that the tourism bureau published a beefcake calendar of bachelor farmers in a shameless bid to lure more women and replenish the dwindling population. Racy stuff for a state where milk is the official drink.

Marquarts thirst for a more exotic life is easy to understand. The familys much-anticipated break from its dawn-to-dusk chore schedule was not a trip to Disneyland, but a biannual road trip to Bismarck to buy provisions.

The opposite sex was a ready diversion from this circumscribed life, and by 14, Marquart was already a veteran backseat cruiser whod slipped her hand deep into the moist pants of many a local boy.

She later dropped out of college to front a heavy metal band. Her notions of fulfillment collided with her parents sense of responsibility, which centered on land ownership and manual labor, not cerebral ephemera like music or writing. Theres work youll do for free because you love it, and theres work youll do to earn a living, her father told her when she was 11.

Even when she received a tenure-track position at Iowa State University, her fathers primary concern was that she wouldnt be working a 40-hour week. And when she sent her parents a copy of a poetry book shed written, they never acknowledged receiving it.

The Horizontal World sometimes verges on lapsing into a dry dissertation on the geological and migratory history of the Great Plains. The book cites 21 other authors, which makes it seem as though Marquart didnt believe her own material was moving enough to stand on its own. It is. She is capable of infusing the most mundane scene with vibrant imagery, and the reader yearns for more gems like this:

My mother has already started. She is cutting necks. My grandmother kneels beside her, also cutting. Between them is a growing pile of chicken heads, wall-eyed, astonished open beaks, the stunned crop of white feathers against the pink wavy flesh of fading combs.

Many of the chapters were published in small magazines, which tends to give the narrative a somewhat disjointed feel. Fortunately, this doesnt diminish the overall richness of the book. The authors elegant, understated sentences are as fertile as freshly tilled rows of loam.

Marquart concludes her memoir with an 11-page rendition of a classic farmers daughter joke. Only in her take, the daughter not only has her way with the salesman, she also steals his car and speeds out of town at morning light. Its a fitting end to an empowering story

Julia Scheeres is the author of a memoir, Jesus Land. She is currently working on a novel.

 

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