The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere

Review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

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

In a recent presentation, Michael Miller of the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, spoke of his Oral History Project. He commented wryly that he always knew interviews had run their course when the interviewees started talking about their kids. Well, one of those “kids,” born in 1956 and 50 years old in the year of this book’s publication, has finally spoken out about her heritage as she remembers it--three generations removed from the original immigrants--and it’s not a lame account.

Debra Marquart, who teaches English at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, has pulled together her writing, most of which originally appeared in other publications, and produced this, her fourth book. She slashes, pushes back, probes, philosophizes, and fantasizes as she remembers growing up the fifth and last child of German Russian farmers bent on keeping the farm in the family. It was land acquired during the homesteading period by her paternal immigrant grandfather Joseph Marquart. Working incredibly hard, her family was/is committed to wresting grain and milk from a farm located near Napoleon on the rolling Missouri Escarpment that runs northwest-southeast across a swath of North Dakota, She tells of picking rocks (they push to the surface every year from the depths of the glacier-deposited hills), hefting bales, butchering chickens, driving the tractor, spreading bedding for livestock with a pitchfork,... All the while plotting her escape.

And escape she did, noting that the view of North Dakota she liked best at the time was the sight she saw while adjusting her car’s rear view mirror. She went to college, joined a rock band when she was a handful of credits shy of graduation, married--twice, became a teacher at the university level, and has written some widely-received books. Now, in this book, she reflects on her heritage of family and ethnicity and place and what its meaning has been for her.

She tells a story familiar to German Russians everywhere: "My great-grandmother came to this country, as all of my mother’s family did, from Lutheran villages in the Glueckstal region of New Russia, west of the Dniester River on the Black Sea. My great-grandfather, Frederick Hoffer,...had immigrated to Dakota Territory in 1899 with his two brothers." pp123-4.

"My great-grandmother, Barbara Hulm Marquart, did not leave Russia by choice. I know that now. She left Kandel, her village on the steppes near the Black Sea, to follow my great-grandfather Joseph who was on the run from forced induction into the Russian army." p 144. Kandel was a Catholic village, and the complications created by this "mixed marriage" were part of what shaped her.

Says Marquart: "...I think about the generations of my family who have dedicated their lives to keeping their name tied to this parcel of land for 110 years, using all their strength, resources, energy, and imagination to outwit the forces, natural or otherwise, that would so easily strip us of this sense of belonging. And I think about how I have benefitted from the sense of rootedness that this place has afforded me as I have cast about, rootless in the world." p24.

As do many others who read her book and those written by Kathleen Norris, author of Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, I saw many connections with her. A heritage rooted in German villages on the steppes of Russia, young life on a farm on the Missouri Escarpment (in my case, where it crosses the southern portion of Ward County), the need to keep the land in the family, religion and conformity as central values,... And we won’t forget how wary I was of the farm boys and how cautious I was of lapses that might have blocked my escape to the larger outside world.

This is not a book for the faint of heart; Marquart does not cater to a German Russian reader who shares her ethnic background and prefers things all tidy and clean. She rebelled hard against her farm upbringing and she tells of doing wild things that would earn the disapproval of elders today as they did when she was a teen. Marquart’s writing is polished, professional. A fine addition to the memoir genre.


Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller