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).
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.