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The Gray Hills

A week or so ago Dr. K and I were part of a group assembled to sit at the feet of three literary masters--Mark Vinz, Debra Marquart, and Louise Erdrich--as they talked among themselves about the sense of place. This was in the Fargo studios of Prairie Public.

One of the things the three masters agreed upon, a thing that struck home to me, was that they listened to their own voices. They had arrived at the point where they trusted their own judgment as to the honesty and tenor of their expression. Not that they ignored their public, but that they had absorbed it; their expression was true, and they trusted their ear.

As to that sense of place, Debra offered a remark that possibly resonated only with me, but I made careful note. She said for years, as a singer and scholar and author wandering far from home, she had a recurring dream-vision of a line of gray hills, a landscape where she somehow knew she would feel she belonged.

Then one day she was driving home to Logan County, where she had been raised, approaching Napoleon from the south. This must have been on state highway 3. Debra looked out, and there they were--those gray hills of her dreams. They were there all along.

Next time I see Debra, I have to ask her: Which side of the road were those hills on? Because I think she will say, on the left, the west side. And then we will talk about Shell Butte, a site of significance to generations of folk in those parts, and the rim of Beaver Creek looping around it.

Place and the names of places and the connotations of places matter. So I think it would be a good idea for all us prairie folk to read Debra’s new book, The Night We Landed on the Moon (new from North Dakota State University Press).

Honestly, the book started out a little slow for me; I think it’s a gender thing, because Debra is, pardon my noticing, forthrightly female, and I think most people recognize my voice as forthrightly male.

Then on page 52 the toggle switch clicked for me. Our girl from Logan County has traveled far, accomplished much, gone through transitions, and come to feel unmoored. She doubts she will be remembered in her old home, she is adrift in Iowa, and she needs connections. She resolves, “Someone would have to claim me as their own.” Family is where you find it.

An expedition to the old country, the land of the Germans in Russia, ends badly, but the search goes on--into the realm of memory, and as Stan Rogers famously sang, “to find there but the road back home again.” Maybe.

Because it’s not that simple. There is some wondrous personal recollection here, including the confession, “I’ll admit I was a cheerleader.” And then, so as to suppress any assumption that this experience implies some sort of mindlessness, Debra offers a sweet apologia for courtside cheering as a portal to poetry and goes on to outline the geometry, and suggest the sensuality, of high school basketball.

Beyond the personal, there is the attempt to penetrate the mix of formulaic nostalgia and intentional forgetting that masks German-Russian history from even its own folk. This is a journey, dear reader, you should make for yourself. Let me know when you come to the passages about milk letters. Or, if that whole section does not grip you, then don’t let me know, for we may not have anything to talk about, you and I. But I think we do. So I’ll see you next week.

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