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
salesman whose car has broken down in the middle of nowhere. The
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
memoir, The Horizontal World, the punch line belongs to the cloistered
Courtesy of Debra Kay Marquart
Debra Marquart (on horse with a neighbor boy) and her brother and
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
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
desire to conform to a place where the only prospects for women
teacher, housewife, nun.
While other teenagers in Napoleon (population 1,107) quelled their
by cruising the three blocks of Main Street or throwing clandestine
parties in the moraines surrounding the wheat fields, Marquarts
streak tugged much harder.
The youngest and wildest of five children, Marquart wasnt alone
snubbing the hard-won legacy of her great-grandfather, who immigrated
Russia to the Dakota Territory in 1885 to tame a 25-by-25-mile chunk
grassland. Her father relocated the family to Bismarck, where he
work as an appliance salesman. But when each of his brothers tried
failed to take over the farm, he announced to his wife that they
moving back, leading to the worst fight of their married lives.
Marquarts brother, the sole male heir, bought a gas station in
town before succumbing to his fathers entreaties to return to the
ancestral acreage. Farm inheritance is patrilineal, but daughters
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
bureau published a beefcake calendar of bachelor farmers in a shameless
bid to lure more women and replenish the dwindling population. Racy
for a state where milk is the official drink.
Marquarts thirst for a more exotic life is easy to understand.
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
by 14, Marquart was already a veteran backseat cruiser whod slipped
hand deep into the moist pants of many a local boy.
She later dropped out of college to front a heavy metal band. Her
of fulfillment collided with her parents sense of responsibility,
centered on land ownership and manual labor, not cerebral ephemera
music or writing. Theres work youll do for free because you love
theres work youll do to earn a living, her father told her when
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
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
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,
the reader yearns for more gems like this:
My mother has already started. She is cutting necks. My grandmother
beside her, also cutting. Between them is a growing pile of chicken
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
give the narrative a somewhat disjointed feel. Fortunately, this
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
with the salesman, she also steals his car and speeds out of town
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.