By John Dominic
Marquart, Debra. The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere. New York: Counterpoint Press, 2006.
"I grew up," Debra Marquart reveals, "in an almost bookless house."
Indeed, her new memoir, "The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere," goes on to say that this Iowa State University professor began her research career with "the Betty Crocker cookbook and the gold-embossed row of World Book encyclopedias."
And yet she "read voraciously as a child. ... The bookmobile saved me."
That truck is probably still making the rounds in her North Dakota town (Napoleon), but if justice ever visits the neighborhood, later generations won't suffer as she did for lack of fine writing.
She arrived at ISU in 1991 as winner of the Hogrefe Fellowship, a year-long appointment.
She says it's been simple "good fortune" that she "ended up staying," eventually earning tenure in ISU's Department of English.
Marquart denies that her latest book is simple autobiography. She points out that "memoir" is a publisher's term, and offers instead the playful new coinage "biomythography."
She defines it as a combination of reminiscence and research, going to the books for "whatever discipline is necessary to narrate that particular level of the story."
Disturbing yet nourishing, at once an elegy and a county fair, "Horizontal World" asserts itself finally as a distinctive portrayal of those arid territories west of the 100th meridian, as well as a specialized itinerary along the American journey from rags to riches. It's a memoir about polarities: attachment and escape.
The subtitle, "Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere," encapsulates the core tension. Marquart's bookless home, with its austere farm rigors, couldn't hold her - yet every adult turning point left her looking homeward.
The book follows that same rough chronology. The first half considers parents and forebears (among them the "Marquart" who escaped Czarist Russia and established the family farm) as it meditates on her childhood.
Young "Debbie" saw things unknown to most of late-20th-century America, and so the adult writer takes time to describe castrating calves and slaughtering chickens - "Mmm, girls," says the mother, as she lops off another head or rips out another set of guts.
Fascinating as such things may seem at a distance, close up they left the author determined to leave. The book's latter half addresses her experience elsewhere, in particular her hardships as a road musician.
These chapters offer the greatest drama (material also covered in Marquart's "The Hunger Bone," 2001), intense epiphanies about how home ties can't be broken.
Throughout, Marquart slips poetic effects through the side of the mouth, as if between chores.
The very title is neatly retooled, halfway along, so it no longer refers to the landscape but rather to backseat groping with teenage boys. Such a nifty bit of duality proves the value in Marquart's beginning her career as a poet (her most recent collection is "From Sweetness," 2002).
Less satisfying are her broader conclusions, in which research seems designed to fit a private agenda. I could hear the ghosts howling at her assertion that "German-Russians were a gentle people."
I doubt, too, that the highly various populations of the Midwest "were all raised under the rough tutelage of the Great Plains."
But "Horizontal World" isn't sociology or history at heart, and when Marquart goes on to describe the Plains as "a fierce and loving taskmaster," she reiterates her memoir's twinned melody of flight and return. A classic tune, and rarely pulled off with such brio and poise.
John Domini is a freelance writer from Des Moines. His next novel, "Earthquake I.D.," is due in February.