The Good, The Bad, and The Farm

If you’re looking for a book about farming that does nothing but sing praises of the beauty and simplicity of red barns and white farmhouses, then by all means, disregard this post.

On the other hand, continue reading if you are one who would prefer a text offering a more complex look into farming, family, and Place, asking questions such as: What’s it like to simultaneously long for and run from the place we call “home?” What exactly do we mean by “home,” and how does it—and the people that live there—shape us?

Debra Marquart, writer and professor at Iowa State University and native of rural North Dakota, explores these questions in her collection of essays, The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere (Counterpoint, 2006).

The Horizontal World by Debra Marquart

Throughout her collection, Marquart draws on a connection to her family and land that runs deep in her writing like an alfalfa taproot on the Dakota plains. In essays such as “Things Not Seen in a Rearview Mirror,” “Between Earth and Sky,” and “On Lost and Crazy Sisters” we are given an intimate lens into her family and its history in rural North Dakota. This is contrasted, however, with essays like “The Horizontal Life,” “Great Falls,” and “To Kill a Deer” that focus on her efforts to escape the countryside as a touring road musician in her youth, and later as an academic.

These two perspectives—one positive, one negative—of rural life serve to give the reader a unique and complete image of growing up in rural North Dakota. Never does Marquart over-romanticize or over-demonize her small town of Napoleon, but instead juxtaposes the good and the bad to illustrate an honest, full character of both her home and herself.

In her essay, “Between Earth and Sky,” this dichotomy is summed up with the questions, “What makes a piece of land go solid under your feet? How to explain this nostalgia for land that overtakes otherwise pragmatic people?” While Marquart may not directly answer these, she gives us a perspective that has the ability to shift between beautiful and gritty. To her, the flat land described by her great-grandmother as “all earth and sky” is more than just a setting to be described or an environment to shape her time there. It is a world with a constant connection to her, both positively and negatively, no matter where life takes her.

What’s my verdict in the end? This is a must read for anyone interested in writing about farming, family, or Place. Marquart’s collection stands out as uniquely honest, offering the reader a FULL perspective of life in the country in all its good, bad, and ugly parts.


About jekcarter

Farmer/Writer/Editor/Advocate for the Imaginary
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5 Responses to The Good, The Bad, and The Farm

  1. Cathy Day says:

    Make sure you review this book on Goodreads and Amazon as well. Deb’s work deserves a wide audience.

  2. John: Thanks so much for your review. I so appreciate that you understood my intent as I was writing–to create a balanced picture, and also to tell the complex story of my ache and love for this beautiful place that’s been largely disregarded in the national imagination. Of course, with the oil boom going on in North Dakota, there’s a whole new story for me to tell about home. It seems, if you love a place, your work is never done–you’ll always have stories to tell. Best of luck with your own stories!

    • jekcarter says:

      Thanks for taking the time to reply to my review! Coming from a similar farming background, the complex balance you created in your collection meant a lot to me

  3. My housemate grew up on a farm, and I’ve always loved hearing her farm stories. There are as many tragic stories of senseless disappointments as there are tales of hilarity, bonding, and strong memories of pulling together through anything. I’ll have to suggest this book to her.

    • jekcarter says:

      You should, it’s a fantastic book! I’d also recommend South of the Big Four by Don Kurtz, which is an amazing novel about a man returning to his family’s Indiana farm after a long absence. Everything from the language and voice of the narrator, to the descriptions of the cold, muddy fields in late autumn, make it one of the most brutally accurate depictions of Indiana farming I’ve ever read. I absolutely loved it.

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