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Words, not birds

June 16, 2011

When I’m not thinking about birds, but still thinking about words, chances are I’m thinking of geography. Why is it certain places have a hold on us? What qualifies as a home? Why are some places, not matter how hard you try, never bound to feel like home? Is one born into a home or can a home be created?

Debra Marquart’s The Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere  (2006) has everything to do with my two favorite obsessions: words and geography. Her brilliant memoir is an account of  her relationship with North Dakota, a home she can never fully escape, no matter how far away she moves. Marquart’s account of North Dakota is so vivid, so vibrant, so teeming with life that I immediately told my husband that we’re headed to the Great Plains for our next vacation. He was less than thrilled with that suggestion.

I’m fascinated by wholly unremarkable places (such as North Dakota) and even more fascinated by writers who manage to render them sublime. Marquart seamlessly entwines historical accounts of the Midwest, elegy, family history, personal anecdotes and popular culture. Her story is a deeply personal account of her family’s land, her identity as a farmer’s daughter along with its complicated expectations/implications, and the endless wheat fields and enormous sky that define her. In the end, even though she leaves North Dakota for the academic life in Iowa (via a career as a rock musician, much to her parents’ horror), Marquart is never far from the arduous work of the farm that she so desperately wished to abandon. Her realization that writing and farming are, in a sense, both lives of toil is startling and beautiful:

How strange it seems to me now, an adult woman so far from that life on the farm, that the struggle I face each day when I approach my writing desk — to bring to language the stories pushing up beneath my feet — feels so much like the hard labor of unearthing those half-exposed rocks in my father’s fields.

And no matter how fiercely I struggled to evade my fate as a farmer’s wife, becoming a writer instead, how strange it is to realize that writing, the act of arranging language in neat horizontal furrows, is a great deal like farming.

The Horizontal World is about the impossibility of escaping one’s formative geography. And it’s the impossibility of her true escape that Debra Marquart renders extraordinary. I read parts of the book twice. I’ve been dreaming of North Dakota. It’s that good.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 17, 2011 2:53 am

    Just LOVE this quote Julia. I can’t imagine dreaming of North Dakota! But she must surely be a fantastic writer if she can romantically evoke that geography! I think James would go nuts over this book.

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