I recently finished reading Kathleen Norris’s book, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. It was recommended to me by my friend Grace, and I was delighted to find a copy readily available from my local library. It was a quick, smooth read for me. The book was more essay than narrative. More poetic sketches of the landscape and the people of the Dakotas than any sort of comprehensive story. Still, it was lovely. A fascinating portrait of a fascinating part of the world.
Kathleen Norris weaves several different threads to craft this book. Each of them are beautiful in their own right. But woven together, they create a complex, colorful portrait of the Western Dakotas.
One primary thread is the story of the region we now call North and South Dakota. I knew the area was vast and sparsely populated, but Norris spelled it out in a compelling way when she wrote, “The Dakotas are America’s Empty Quarter, with a population of about one and a third million people, roughly one fifth of the population of New York City, or a third that of Los Angeles, or a little less than half that of Chicago, spread over an area almost the size of California, and three times larger than New York State.” Later in that same chapter, she wrote, “Eleven counties in South Dakota now meet the traditional definition of frontier, places having two or fewer persons per square mile.”
Norris makes keen observations about the people of the Dakotas, too. Both admirable qualities and questionable qualities. Her reflection of life in the Dakotas is not always as sunny as the big prairie skies. In one part of the book, she writes, “By the time a town is seventy-five or one hundred years old, it may be filled with those who have come to idealize their isolation. Often these are people who never left at all, or fled back to the safety of the town after a try at college a few hundred miles from home, or returned after college regarding the values of the broader, more pluralistic world they had encountered as something to protect themselves and their families from.” Still, even her sharpest critiques of the people are tempered by the fact that she clearly admires them. And she is one of them.
Norris’s grandparents left her their house in Lemmon, South Dakota, when they died. So Norris and her husband moved there in early-adulthood, and they’ve intertwined their stories with the story of the region. I was expecting this autobiographical element to be a more major thread of the book. However, she seems to prefer revealing just enough of herself that she can be verified as a credible witness.
Doubtless, there is far more of Kathleen Norris in this book than meets the eye. But my reading of this book left me wondering more about her story. Which is probably better than getting overwhelmed by any sort of narcissism or navel-gazing. Still, when she says something like, “Maybe the desert wisdom of the Dakotas can teach us to love anyway, to love what is dying, in the face of death, and not pretend that things are other than they are” — I’d kind of like to know more of the backstory. But maybe that’s what her other books are for!
The author’s Christian faith is another intriguing (though underdeveloped) thread of the book. It seems like she may not have taken ownership for her heritage of faith until she moved to the Dakotas. She seems to be most at home within the Presbyterian Church. But she also seems to gravitate towards some of the traditions from Catholicism. Particularly Benedictine Monasticism. The Benedictines make regular appearances throughout the book, as Norris visits various monasteries and abbeys for her own spiritual health, and the people living in these intentional communities end up serving as some of the most compelling figures.
At one point, Norris writes that, “It may be fashionable to assert that all is holy, but not many are willing to haul ass to church four or five times a day to sing about it. It’s not for the faint of heart.” And I just love the way that she doesn’t just tell us this; she consistently shows this. The stories from Dakota reminded me of what I experienced the one time I visited a Benedictine monastery twelve years ago. And they made me want to prioritize another spiritual retreat to a Benedictine monastery sometime soon.
I’d recommend this book to anyone who loves the Great Plains like I do… to anyone who is intrigued by Benedictine Monasticism… and to anyone who appreciates contemplative, creative prose. Honestly, even if you just read the periodic, one-page Weather Reports, it would give you a powerful picture of this part of the world. Let me know if you ever give it a read.