Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography

We may have a contender for the worst book of 2007. I don't think I can finish Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris (1993) for several reasons. 
(I removed this review several years ago due to a group of people who targeted me for attack. Now it's back and I will remove comments, especially if they are not discussing the actual book. It is a book review and reflects my opinions. If you feel differently, write your own review.)

First, I think this book was written to elevate the author's self esteem. She accomplishes this by placing herself above most of the other, common people around her, the ones she's writing about. I think she started out with a good dose of too much self importance to begin with and, for me, that keeps getting in the way of reading her book. While reading, I keep feeling like Norris is trying to impress me with all this depth and insightfulness that she alone possesses. We need to appreciate her book because she was clever enough to write it. Hogwash.

Norris seems quite intent on equating living in the west river Dakotas with living in a monastery... or a desert. Interesting idea, but not in a good way. She doesn't manage to pull it off either. Currently I'm living in a desert and let me tell you, even west river SD looks verdant compared to a real desert. I have also lived in SD, although not even close to the area she is attempting to discuss like an anthropological subject. I can't imagine her small town neighbors were too impressed with her book, but then I don't think Norris ever thought they'd be whippy enough to read it. She's pretty darn sure that the residents won't say they "didn't just fall off the turnip truck," because she's convinced they'd never managed to find the truck in the first place, let alone climb on board.

Let me end this by saying I didn't like this book at all. Normally I push through and make myself finish a book if I think they'll be some redeeming part to it. I don't think that's going to happen here. I might send this to a friend who has her masters (or Ph.D. by now) and is working for the state of SD's historical society. It might depress her to read about how ignorant and totally uncool the inhabitants of her state are, but she needs to know. She can tell her whole large, well educated family how sad they all are to be in or from SD. I wonder if Norris continued to live in SD after she wrote this?



Lisa said...

Lori, I totally agree with you. I moved to west river SD from Alabama in 2002. I found this book shortly after moving and was excited by the title. I thought it would be excellent for me to read. I Could. Not. Finish. She was so snotty and horrible and I didn't see how anyone in SD would ever want her back in their town.

Additionally, the different between east river and west river (The Missouri River divides the state in half, for those of you not familiar with SD geography) is so completely startling that it should be mentioned. I moved here sight unseen and drove in from the east. When you come over the hill to the river everything changes.

I still have the book on my shelf, but after 5 years I can't imagine that I'll ever want to finish it.

Lori L said...

Lisa, I'm relieved to see someone else saw this book the same way I did, although it saddens me to see that another person was sucked into buying it. It appears we both thoguht it would be something it wasn't. I was hoping it would celebrate the people in the plains. How much more wrong could I possibly be? Mine was a used copy, so I will feel no guilt if I decide to toss it out. (I imagine, though, my kids will read this review and both want to read the book to see if it really is horrible before I get rid of it.)At the same time I picked this book up, I got a copy of Leaning into the Wind, in which women write about living on the northern plains. It's an anthology of short pieces, so perhaps it will be better, but I'm almost scared to read it now.

I used to know people on the SD arts council. I wonder if they read Norris's book? If they did it seems highly unlikely they'd be inviting her back as an artist in residence at any of the schools.

Lisa said...

I also have Leaning into the Wind, and also have not read it! Perhaps I should take another look, but now that I've been here for 5 years it's not so urgent that I read about the state.

Laura Christianson said...

I feel the same way. I listened to the book on tape while I was roller blading and it almost put me into a comatose state. What a disappointment from such a good writer.

sage said...

I read this book a dozen or so years ago and thought it was okay (maybe it was because I'd just moved to rural Utah...) Yes, Norris is often condenscending, but I also felt an attachment to the earth. I also knew someone who had lived in Lemon, SD and lent him the book and he said he enjoyed it (maybe he was being polite). Did you read Jane Smiley's "A Thousand Acres?" I'm wondering if there are parallels to how each writer approached life on the Plains. here via Semicolon

Lori L said...

Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres was immediately one of my favorite books. After I read it, I went out and bought my own copy and then read every Smiley I could get my hands on. When you read Jane Smiley, you don't feel like she's placed herself above the people in the Midwest and looking down on them. Take Moo for example. Smiley is poking gentle fun at a stereotypical Midwestern college and it's cast of characters. Noticing the foibles and idiosyncrasies of people isn't the same as being condescending toward them. As Lisa said, Norris was "snotty" toward the people in SD. Poking gentle fun at people is different. Other writers have managed to do it without the attitude.

I didn't feel Norris had a connection with the land or earth at all. She liked to think she did. Lots of people who move out from cities like to think they now have a connection to the land once they are in a less populated area. It would have behooved Norris to maybe go out and work on a ranch or farm for awhile.

Lori L said...

A note to those who stumble upon this review, or lack there of:
I removed the review several months ago after some rather personal attacks were leveled at me because I didn't like the book. Although I gave several reasons why I didn't like it, I saw no good reason to leave the whole review up.