By Tom Isern
Marquart, Debra. The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere. New York: Counterpoint Press, 2006.
Considerable stir attended the release last year of a new memoir by Debra Marquart entitled The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere. Now the stir has calmed, and we are left to reflect what this book, and others like it, say to us as people of the plains.
Marquart teaches creative writing at Iowa State University, but her roots are in the North Dakota Plainsspecifically in a farm near Napoleon. Like most all the neighbors, her folks were of German-Russian ancestry. Like most all her girlish friends, Marquart left there as a young woman and has come back only to visit.
Horizontal World is not written for a prairie audience. It is written for an expatriate audience. It speaks to others who come from the plainsthat freemasonry of prairie youth of which Willa Cather once spokeand to people who know them. Marquart sounds familiar themes that resonate with expatriates. She says she has benefited from the sense of rootedness that this place has afforded me as I have cast about, rootless in the world. She feels the tug of a long, sinewy taproot that reaches back home. In middle age she finds herself daydreaming of the family land and of wandering happily through rows of trees on a sunny fall afternoon.
This work is not the place to look for informative exposition about the modern manifestations of German-Russian ancestry or even about the state of the Great Plains in general. There is a bit of the latter, but its quite conventional references to Garrison Keillor, the film Fargo, the Great American Desert, the rectangular survey system, and the phony controversy over changing the name of North Dakota.
If the work is not about those things, then what is it about? Partly its about artful writing. Some of the critics who wrote blurbs for it got a little bit too artful. One of them says if you read Horizontal World you will learn what the hungry wind feels like on your naked body. I wonder what that means. Maybe I should take my clothes off and read the book again.
Fortunately, Marquart writes more keenly than that. I agree with the guy in the Des Moines Register who says she slips poetic effects through the side of the mouth, as if between chores. Thats it exactly; Marquart writes both cleverly and beautifully, a rare combination.
Her writing is, remember, creative work. I did a tough apprenticeship in storytelling with my family, she says, and part of what she learned, she admits, was to leave some things out and to embellish those left in.
Horizontal World, though, is an honest book, in two ways. First, it is a rather self-indulgent work, which I think is true to the author, who I think is true to her generation. The self-absorption is more striking on second reading, once you have become accustomed to the artful writing.
Second, the book deals with at least one fact of life on the plains that we still have trouble facing: children of the prairies go away, the daughters more so than the sons. Farmers daughters, writes Marquart, must struggle against the powerful apostrophes of their fatherstheir possessiveness, that is. They must drive away some early spring morning, hands planted firmly on the wheel, convinced they will never look back.
This is not to say the prairies are going to be depopulated. It
is only to say they will be abandoned, again and again. The demographics
of the plains are turning around today, but the fact of children
fleeing home will not cease. So leave a light on in the window,
and save up your
frequent flyer miles.
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