Book Review: Dakota

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Dakota a Spiritual Geography


Author: Kathleen Norris


Date: 1993


Publisher: Ticknor & Fields / Houghtn Mifflin


ISBN: 0-395-63320-6


Length: 224 pages


Quote: “I want to be light, to cast off impediments, and push like a tulip through a muddy smear of snow.”


While writing Dakota, Norris was about to become a cancer widow, but didn’t yet know it. When her husband, David Dwyer, was being treated for “depression” and then for other physical conditions, Norris became a frequent guest at a monastery near the hospital. Here she calmed herself by writing three books of mostly short essays about coming home to her ancestors’ farmland and to their religion. Dakota, the first book, has the most to say about the land.


Even in Dakota the essays are permeated with Norris’ ecumenical religion. She was brought up Presbyterian, but she may have been baptized a Catholic, was always attracted to Catholic liturgy, and found that she could pray, sing, and study with monks and nuns without having to change her formal religious affiliation. Her education at “progressive” Bennington College gave her a fear of becoming narrow-minded about her religion, so she also writes about visiting other religious groups and reading the literature of other religions. Her church membership will remain Presbyterian; to my considerable surprise, this does not interfere with her being accepted as a “Benedictine Oblate” by her monastic friends—apparently even full-fledged Benedictine monks and nuns don’t have to be Roman Catholic.


Norris’ life and writing fascinated thousands of people in the 1990s; Dakota wasn’t a runaway bestseller, but its sequels, Amazing Grace and The Cloister Walk, were. The Virgin of Bennington, a mere memoir of Norris’ youth and courtship, sold well enough to indicate that there would still be a market for another religious book, written after Dwyer died, called Acedia & Me.


Of these books, some might ask, do I have a favorite? Not really…but the one of these books I’ve reread most often, lately, has been Dakota. The “city person chooses to live in the country” motif appeals to me, and although the Dakota landscapes have to be as foreign to me as landscapes can get, Norris’s description of small-town and farm life in her alien country is remarkably like what all of us have to deal with in the Blue Ridge Mountains.


The monasticism, too…Norris never intended to become a nun. Most people don’t. Most of us think we want sex and money. All writers are by definition overprivileged, but many people think they want higher status and more property than most writers ever have; many people also think they want children. Wanting sex, money, status, property, and/or children does not always guarantee that we’ll get them…and around age forty many of us become interested in monastic people. Not that we want to swear off ever allowing ourselves to have these things, but we want to understand how people live, and seem to live contentedly, without any of them.


Norris had the opportunity to find out, and in Dakota that’s what she shares with us. Observations of nature, wild or human, link themselves to spiritual reflections. “The flow of the land, with its odd twists and buttes, is like the flow of Gregorian chant.” In “a town that might be too small to have a motel” or “If there is a motel, it’s often on its last legs,” the “grim surroundings used to overwhelm me…I began to see those forlorn motel rooms as monks’ cells, full of the gifts of silence and solitude.” “[W]alking in a hard Dakota wind can be like staring at the ocean: humbled before its immensity, I also have a sense of being at home on this planet.”


Considering how much of this book was written as a sort of therapeutic discipline, reading and writing about something other than a loved one’s pain, this is (and Norris’ other books are) a remarkably joyful book. There’s no attempt to force cheer by “counting her blessings,” but Norris shows us why they are blessings: the Presbyterian church where “there is no indoor plumbing…but the congregation celebrates with food and drink at every opportunity,” the Native Americans who “advise a [W]hite woman to look into her own culture and find what is liberating in it,” the morning walk “too late for dawn light; the eastern sky is the color of burnished gold,” and many more. She even manages to find a “Holy Use of Gossip.” Reading that chapter, I’m not convinced that there is any excuse for gossip, but at least it’s given me something to chuckle about even when I encounter a fresh-steaming glob of the nasty stuff.


Dakota is recommended to anyone who has not already read it. You won’t feel the urge to move, but you may find yourself  appreciating where you are more for having read it—not even in the sense of “At least it’s not as cold as the winter day described on page 25 of Dakota” so much as in the sense that you become more mindful of where you live, why you do or don’t love it, how you relate to your home spiritually.

Dakota is a Fair Trade Book. To buy it online here, send $5 per copy + $5 per package to either address at the lower left-hand corner of the screen. That’s a total of $10, so even if you order four copies and send me a total of $25 I’ll send $1 per copy, or possibly $4, to Kathleen Norris or a charity of her choice.

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