Title: “Dakota or What’s a Heaven For”
Author: Brenda K. Marshall
“Dakota” is historical fiction set in northern Dakota Territory during the 19th century. The characters are a cross section of people you would find in a frontier town during that time: immigrants, railroad executives, farmers, businessmen, newspapermen and politicians.
To prepare herself to write this story, Brenda K. Marshall read only history, literature, newspapers, letters and diaries from that era for two years. She wanted to get a sense of the authentic language and actions of people at that time.
The writing of “Dakota” sets the author above many others who pen stories of frontier settlement, because she has taken the time to get to know her characters. In an interview on “Prairie Pulse,” she admits that the characters did not always act the way she believed they would. Clearly, she played and replayed the characters and the plot in her head because it pieces together smoothly.
The story focuses on Frances Houghton Bingham, the aristocratic protagonist. As it opens, she is living with her husband, Percy, in the St. Paul home of his father. Her father-in-law got involved with buying Bonanza Farms along the Northern Pacific Railway near Fargo, thus moving his family to a mansion he built there.
Percy went to work for the railroad company writing advertising to promote land sales.
While Percy longs to make his fortune so he can leave “this God-forsaken land,” Frances falls in love with the freedom and opportunity, the possibilities a woman might ordain there.
Another strong woman developed as a major character in the book: Kirsten Knudsen, the daughter of Norwegian homesteaders who works as a housekeeper for the Binghams.
Kirsten’s chapters of the book are written in the first person in the voice of a young woman who seems to over-simplify her circumstances, but actually has a clear understanding of things as they are. I found her chapters to be the most enjoyable. The author revealed that when she wrote Kirsten’s thoughts, she drank a lot of caffeine!
“This that may be I should not say: I do not want a husband who will take my land and tell me what to do. I am strong and good to work. I am good to clean and to cook and to sew and to do the laundry ... I do not want to be like Mor (her mother), with my hands in lye or tallow or hot water or bread dough all day long and my back all bent over from making candles and soap and stirring laundry with a big paddle in boiling water and then scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing and baking and cooking and spinning and feeding the cows and the chickens and stacking the hay, and all of this with a new baby every year and never a smile until I am skinny and sick and old.”
Marshall introduces us to some real historical figures who were key players to the settlement of Dakota Territory: Moses K. Armstrong, J. B. Power and Alexander McKenzie.
After studying their letters, speeches and other information, Marshall included the men in her story in the way she pictured them. They were some of the powerful people who made decisions about statehood and where capital cities were located, who would own land, and who would be “important.”
Frances had to face the cold, hard truth: “She was as powerless as the immigrants pouring into the territory, filled with their own dreams of a new life. We all live according to someone else’s rules, Frances thought. And if the rules, the laws, the decisions were to be altered, here in Dakota Territory, they would be altered as they were elsewhere, by men with money and power.”
The novel teems with 19th century themes: immigration, statehood, prejudice, women’s rights or lack of them, and politics. Other themes are those common to the region: blizzards and the land itself which is a character because of its dominance in the lives of other characters.
Marshall makes history come alive, personalizing what I have learned in North Dakota history books. “Dakota” will be a great addition to booklists on North Dakota studies.
(Rita Greff grew up the oldest of eight children in a family that valued reading, particularly fiction. She taught fifth and sixth grades for 34 years.)