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Book Review: Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For by Brenda K. Marshall

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Being a lifelong South Dakotan, I’m all too used to hearing, “Why would you want to live there?!?” Of course, most of these are people who consider “Dakota,” as they call it, a speck in flyover land and think us hayseeds keep a wary eye out for the tepees of hostiles.

Yes, the weather here can be challenging. And our Native American population has a right to be hostile given that six of the seven poorest counties in the nation are predominantly reservation land in North and South Dakota. But there’s a certain feel and pace to the area, one that Brenda K. Marshall makes every effort to and frequently captures in Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For.

Set in the period when Laura Ingalls Wilder was living in Dakota Territory, some might presume that its setting in the Red River Valley near Fargo, N.D., is what distinguishes it from Wilder’s Little House series. Granted, both portray the difficulties of trying to carve out a life on the prairie and recognize the role of women in that enterprise. Dakota has a grander vision, however, a much broader horizon than the family home and nearby town, which she brings through in a couple ways.

One is the breadth of characters. The main focus is the family of John Bingham, who, at the outset, is a wealthy investor in the Northern Pacific Railroad living in St. Paul, Minnesota. When the Northern Pacific goes bankrupt and sparks the Panic of 1873, Bingham is among the investors who seek to recoup losses in the stock by trading it for land the railroad held as part of its massive land grant and taking his family to what was known as a “bonanza” farm. Much of the story is told from the perspective of his daughter-in-law, Frances Boughton Bingham.

At the other end of the spectrum is the family of Torger Knudson, Norwegian immigrant homesteaders trying to eke out an existence in a sod house on the prairie. His daughter, Kirsten, will eventually become part of the housekeeping staff in the sumptuous Bingham home in the midst of the prairie. Parts of the story are also told from her perspective, although hers is in the first person in a dialect reflective of her heritage and, as the story proceeds, of the growth in her development.

Just as the will of these two women come on display over the course of the book, there is another persistent indomitable force — the weather. Whether in the form of blizzards, the humidity of summer, the omnipresent wind, the flooding of the Red River or the profoundly beautiful changes it brings to the land over the seasons, the weather is a constant presence in the lives of these people. This is particularly so given the isolation and distance among the many families and individuals living outside established communities and the fact that not only their livelihood but their lives depend on the weather.

Finally, Marshall, who grew up on a farm in the Red River Valley and now teaches English at the University of Michigan, weaves the territorial politics of the time into the story. Various characters, including Frances’ husband, take the reader to the territorial capital in Yankton, in what is now southeastern South Dakota, nearly 300 miles from the Red River Valley. This gives us a glimpse of not only the debate over the capital’s location and dividing the territory into two states, but also the chicanery and graft underlying and influencing much of the political debate. By occasionally taking the story inside the powers and efforts trying to bring people to the prairie and the disadvantages to which individual families were subjected by those same promoters, Dakota is historical fiction that entertains and educates.

Although at an important storyline involving Frances is particularly modern, Dakota is presented in a style that echoes the motifs of late 19th Century American literature, even with its chapter headings. The story unfolds at a relatively leisurely pace. While some readers might find it too leisurely, the pace has the feel of the gradual change of seasons. Occasionally, the book’s breadth can be a weakness as, for example, some characters or episodes almost seem like vehicles intended to take the reader to particular places or to place the story in a context with historical events those unfamiliar with the Dakotas will know. Ultimately, though, the book is a meticulous tapestry intended to show how life was lived and how some prospered, some failed and “most just hung on.” It is an homage not only to the people but to the land and the profound relationship between the two.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.