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.