WATFORD CITY, N.D. — Kathleen Norris gave Dakota self-respect at a time when the land was emptying out, when people who weren't dying of old age were leaving and schools and even towns were closing up. It was slipping away and unsure of what it would be when the sliding stopped.
In 1993, while living in Lemmon, S.D., Norris wrote “Dakota: A Spiritual Geography.” It became a New York Times bestseller and through Norris’ words, Dakotans found pride in their homespun qualities and the extreme prairie weather, even as the book confirmed outsiders’ views of an exotic and lonely place, where endless horizons could hold large human emotion.
Fast forward 21 years.
Norris has returned to Dakota, both North and South, with her book. She’s engaging citizens as the twin states observe a 125th anniversary of statehood in a literary project by both states’ humanities councils entitled “Two States One Book.”
Norris lives in Hawaii now and in this tour throughout the month of June she has zigzagged across the states, big town to little town, driving long solitary highways bordered in lush spring grass to get there.
Last week, she drove past oil rigs and semi trucks to Watford City, where about 15 men and women listened to her book reading and engaged in conversation.
Widowed now, older, of course, and dressed simply for traveling, she told them “Dakota” was never meant to explain this place to others.
“I just want to write what I was seeing. I wasn’t writing for an outside audience; I didn’t think there was one. I just wanted to describe the place and the people,” she said. “We are surrounded by a lot of loss around here. You go crazy or you deal with it, but we feel it.”
Norris could not have imagined that the fading, resilient Dakota she described in 1993, the one headed for a vast Buffalo Commons, could undergo the change wrought by the Bakken oil boom. Now, oil is a bestseller and towns like Watford City are still trying to come to grips with all the loss and opportunity, something like losing your identification just when you need it to cash in a winning lottery ticket.
Kris Pacheco and Joy Patten, both teachers in Watford City, tried to explain their take on the new spiritual geography.
Pacheco said there is give and take.
“The losses of the oil boom — our kids are coming back, but our older people are leaving. Who are we if don’t have our previous generation?” she asked.
Living with the boom is not a bad thing; it’s a mindset and a choice of attitude, like choosing to welcome newcomers with a casserole and viewing jammed up traffic as more time for books on tape, she said. “She (Norris) romanticized the dying, but a death room is a quiet place.”
“I do miss our Mayberry, but that wasn’t perfect either. As a community, we’ll have to take what we can with us, our neighborliness, our connections. There is still so much there,” Pacheco said.
Patten said she is invigorated by the change and inspired by the tough-looking oil field dads, who are reduced to tears when they take their little girls’ hands to leave a school hell-bent on doing its best for every child.
“It’s not a loss out there, it’s a gain. There is no blueprint for what we’re trying to do now. It’s never been easy for any of my ancestors. This will be our struggle,” Patten said.
Norris reflected that the Dakota spiritual geography has always been tied to a boom and bust psychology.
“People here are more sane, and I think that’s going to help. The values are pretty deep, and the people coming here have good values too; they’re here because they want to support their family,” she said.
It’s the long view that will help most, she said. “When change is so quick it’s tough to keep a sense of perspective. The land itself is eternal, though we can mess it up pretty good,” she said.
She expected worse and said her eyes lingered on all the pasture and beautiful land still there among the drilling derricks and pump jacks.
She laughed a bit and said a popular t-shirt slogan came to mind when putting the angst of all the change into words: “Keep calm and carry on.”
Brenna Daugherty Gerhardt, director of the N.D. Humanities Council, said Norris’ book fit perfectly as a literary departure for both Dakotas as they reach this 125th milestone.
“This was a discussion on what it means to be a North Dakotan — compared to 20 years ago there’s been so much change — and if their values have or haven’t changed. We wanted to start a conversation about the future and remember the past,” she said.
Anyone still interested in joining the book discussion can see Norris Sept. 26-28 at the South Dakota Festival of Books in Sioux Falls and in Yankton, S.D. on Sept. 30.
“Two States One Book” returns and ends in North Dakota Oct. 4 at Bismarck State College.